U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departed for Pyongyang early Thursday morning, Agence France-Presse reported.
He is expected to hold talks with DPRK leader Kim Jong Un during his visit – the third meeting between the two men to take place in Pyongyang this year.
It will also represent the most high-level North Korea-U.S. meeting since the June 12 Singapore Summit between Kim and President Donald Trump.
Friday’s talks are expected to see Pyongyang and Washington further iron out the details of the June 12 agreement, particular as they relate to North Korea’s stated commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula.
U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, who stepped in to lead denuclearization talks in the lead up to the summit, met with North Korean officials at Panmunjom over the weekend to prepare for Pompeo’s trip and discuss the next steps in negotiations over the North’s nuclear program.
It was reported that head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center Andrew Kim joined the meeting and delivered a letter from Trump to high-level North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, whom Pompeo met previously both in Pyongyang and during Kim’s trip to the U.S. in May.
Pompeo’s visit comes a week after reports surfaced detailing concerns among U.S. intelligence officials that North Korea was not taking steps to dismantle its nuclear program and seeking to “deceive” Washington.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on Monday refused to comment on the leaks.
“We aren’t going to confirm or deny any intelligence reports,” Sanders said. “What I can tell you is that we’re continuing to make progress.”
President Trump then said in a tweet on Tuesday that negotiations were “going well,” repeating that the lack of missile and nuclear tests over the past 8 months from North Korea was a sign of progress.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley also said on Tuesday that the U.S. has “already gotten so many concessions on the front end by North Korea.”
Besides emphasizing the North’s promise to denuclearize – articulated in the June 12 agreement as a commitment “to work toward” complete denuclearization – Trump and other administration officials have focused on three main concessions, among others, when promoting the ongoing talks.
These are the stated intention to halt all missile launches and nuclear tests, the release of three American prisoners in North Korea in May (which coincided with Pompeo’s last visit to Pyongyang), the North’s agreeing to return the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the 1950-1953 Korean War.
In addition to guarantees that the North is taking further steps towards nuclear disarmament, Pompeo also likely heads to Pyongyang in hopes of securing an update on the return of those remains.
A spokesperson for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) last week said 100 wooden caskets were delivered to the Joint Security Area at the North-South border, but no further actions have been confirmed since.
On denuclearization, Pompeo may seek assurances to substantiate Trump’s June 20 claim that that the DPRK had already “stopped everything that you’d want them to stop” related to their nuclear program.
Statements released by the State Department following last weekend’s working-talks at Panmunjom said that the Trump administration’s goal “remains the final, fully-verified denuclearization of the DPRK” – a semantic departure from previous U.S. calls for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID).
And while the State Department has insisted that the change does not suggest a softening of Washington’s position, Reuters reported Thursday that the U.S. was watering down its demands on the advice of South Korea.
Officials in DC this week, too, have been reticent to specify what kinds of assurances Pompeo expects to receive following his meetings in Pyongyang or specifics over how the denuclearization process will go forward from here.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the U.S. is “not going to provide a timeline” – a response to comments by National Security Advisor John Bolton suggesting “the overwhelming bulk” of the DPRK’s nuclear program would be scrapped “within a year.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Air Force
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