US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s canceled trip to North Korea is likely to further complicate the denuclearization talks between the North and the US, and could interfere with South Korea’s efforts to advance inter-Korean relations, experts say.
US President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that he had told Pompeo to call off his planned trip to Pyongyang due to insufficient progress in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Trump also suggested nuclear negotiations with North Korea have been hampered by a lack of support from China, the North’s major ally, which is currently engaged in an intensifying trade war with the US.
“I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump tweeted Friday. “Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved.”
Pompeo was due to head to Pyongyang for a fourth time this week with his newly appointed special envoy to North Korea -- Stephen Beigun, a Ford Motor executive -- in hopes of making progress in the stalled denuclearization talks.
Trump’s decision to postpone the trip is meant to put pressure on North Korea to take more concrete steps to denuclearize and to send a message to China, analysts say. It would delay the denuclearization talks, but not likely derail the talks.
“It is a sign that talks between North Korea and the US are not going very well. Trump might have felt that there was no need to send Pompeo to North Korea without any guarantee of substantial progress on North Korea’s denuclearization,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
The cancellation of Pompeo’s trip is likely a negotiation tactic, however, rather than a shift in his North Korea policy, Shin said, just as Trump canceled the US-North Korea summit in June only to reinstate it a few days later.
“When North Korea makes concessions on denuclearization, talks between North Korea and the US could resume anytime. The US’ demand has been consistent and it is up to North Korea to advance the denuclearization talks,” he said.
Since the June 12 summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, progress on North Korea’s denuclearization has been slower than expected.
North Korea demands that the US ease sanctions against it and formally declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War as a reciprocal step, citing a series of goodwill gestures it has already made. On the other hand, the US maintains that sanctions must remain in place until the North fully denuclearizes and is reportedly demanding more concrete steps from the North -- for example, releasing an inventory of its nuclear facilities -- as a precondition to formally ending the war.
Despite the cancellation of Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, a sign of the ongoing thaw was apparent in Trump’s tweets Friday: “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
Trump’s focus, said another expert, may be on keeping China in check.
“I think that China is the main reason Trump canceled Pompeo’s trip, rather than North Korea or its lack of progress on denuclearization,” Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.
“It is more about Trump using the North Korea card to put pressure on China in the face of an intensifying trade war.”
The US and China have been locked in a trade dispute for months, with each side slapping tit-for-tat tariffs on imports from the other country. Analysts say China stands to lose more from the trade war than the US.
In response to Trump’s stepped-up rhetoric, China on Saturday lashed out at Trump for accusing it of not being supportive in efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
“The US statement is contrary to basic facts and is irresponsible. We are seriously concerned about this,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.
Trump calling off Pompeo’s trip to the North could push Chinese President Xi Jinping to reconsider visiting Pyongyang, Hong said. Xi is reportedly planning a trip to North Korea around Sept. 9 to attend an event marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.
“It would put a greater political burden on China and (raises) the possibility of China not going to North Korea,” Hong said, adding that China would not want to upset the US.
The canceled trip also puts South Korea in an awkward position as President Moon Jae-in seeks to hold a third summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September.
South Korea, which has brokered talks between the US and North Korea, has been hoping for a breakthrough from Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang to provide momentum to push for a formal end to the Korean War this year, advance inter-Korean relations, and expand cross-border exchanges.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke to Pompeo by telephone Saturday and expressed regret over the cancellation of the trip.
“Instead of attaching meaning to every change in the situation, it is most important that we concentrate our diplomatic efforts on keeping up the momentum for dialogue and faithfully implementing the agreements from the summits between South Korea and North Korea and between North Korea and the US, from a long-term perspective,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Moon now has a heavier burden on his shoulders when he travels to North Korea next month, Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University, said.
“President Moon will still head to Pyongyang, North Korea will ask for easing of sanctions and expansion of inter-Korean cooperation, but South Korea will not be able to accept that,” Park said.
“During the upcoming visit to Pyongyang, I think President Moon should focus on seeking a breakthrough in the stalled North Korea-US talks by preparing a detailed road map, including a timeline for North Korea’s denuclearization as well as the timeline for rewards.”