Pompeo in Pyongyang with detainees on agenda
America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo held meetings with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang Wednesday, with speculation swirling around the fate of three US detainees ahead of a planned US-North Korea summit.
Pompeo was dispatched on an unannounced visit — his second in weeks, but first as secretary of state — to advance preparations for Donald Trump’s unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong Un over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
He told reporters that he hoped to agree a date and venue for the summit — even though Trump said they had already been chosen.
But optimism over the process was dealt a blow by Trump’s pullout from a nuclear deal with Iran Tuesday.
Pompeo’s visit came with rumours flying over three US citizens being held in the North, fuelled by South Korea where the president’s office said they expected the men to be freed.
The trio are a significant domestic political issue in the US and Trump hinted last week of imminent news after sources said they had been relocated.
In previous cases, detainees have been set free into the care of high-profile US visitors, but there was no immediate indication they would be released after Pompeo held talks with Kim Yong Chul, director of the North’s United Front department, one of the organisations handling relations with the South.
The US hoped “we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve”, Pompeo told him, but added: “There are many challenges along the way.”
The rapid detente on the Korean peninsula triggered by the Winter Olympics is a marked contrast from last year, when Kim and Trump traded personal insults and threats of war over the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
“We think relationships are building with North Korea,” Trump said in televised comments from the White House. “We will see how it all works out. Maybe it won’t. But it can be a great thing for North Korea, South Korea and the entire world.”
But the American president spoke as he yanked the US out of a nuclear deal with Iran, complicating the prospects of persuading Pyongyang to surrender its atomic arsenal.
Trump poured scorn on the “disastrous” 2015 accord, reached after a decade and a half of careful diplomacy by Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia and past US administrations, describing it as an “embarrassment” to the United States.
Other signatories and the International Atomic Energy Agency say Iran has complied with its obligations under the deal, and Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists said: “Amazing to think that Secretary Pompeo will arrive in Pyongyang today bearing the following message: ‘If you eliminate your nuclear weapons, we’ll lift sanctions and won’t attack you. You can trust us’.”
Also Wednesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang backed the Panmunjom Declaration at a tripartite summit with Moon in Tokyo, Seoul said.
But the three neighbours have differing positions on the North, with Japan taking by far the hardest line but finding itself largely watching the diplomatic frenzy from the sidelines, left uneasy by the pace of events and by what it sees as an unwarranted softening towards an untrustworthy Pyongyang.
The North should not be given a reward for closing its nuclear test site or not launching long-range missiles, Abe said after talks with Moon, according to the Blue House.
“The North should take additional and concrete actions,” it cited him as saying.