UPDATE AT 1700 KST: This article has been updated to include the South Korean government’s response to the news.
A planned meeting between high-level North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been postponed, the State Department announced on Wednesday.
The meeting, scheduled to take place on Thursday in New York, was set to be closely watched, with its outcome expected to be a crucial factor in whether or not this year’s diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and North Korea continues.
“Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’s meeting with officials from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, scheduled for this week in New York, will now take place at a later date,” spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. “We will reconvene when our respective schedules permit.”
“Ongoing conversations continue to take place,” the statement added, stressing that “the United States remains focused on fulfilling the commitments agreed to by President Trump and Chairman Kim at the Singapore Summit in June.”
No details have been given on which side chose to reschedule the talks, and North Korea is yet to publicly comment on the news.
The South Korean government on Wednesday afternoon sought to downplay the impact of the postponement on stalling DPRK-U.S. diplomacy.
“I don’t think the postponement will either lead to the cancellation of the North-U.S. meeting or make [them] move in the direction of losing the momentum of the North-U.S. talks,” Blue House spokesperson Kim Eui-keum told a regular briefing on Wednesday.
A closed-door briefing with media, too, saw a senior official at South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) who wished to remain anonymous say the postponement was “regrettable.”
“We don’t need to overthink the postponement of the meeting,” the official said. “It should be considered as part of process of achieving complete denuclearization and establishing a peace regime.”
“In our position, we expect that both will reschedule and hold talks as soon as possible… we don’t have to be emotional as the North-U.S. talks have occasionally been delayed in the past.”
Observers expected Thursday’s meeting to focus on denuclearization, as well as plans for a second summit between DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The cancellation of what was expected to be the first high-level DPRK-U.S. talks since a visit by Pompeo to Pyongyang last month comes as both sides have dug their heels in on whether relief from international sanctions for the DPRK should come before or after its full denuclearization.
A North Korean official in a statement on Friday warned that the country may restart its nuclear development should Washington not take steps towards offering Pyongyang sanctions relief.
That commentary, purported to have been written by a director of the foreign ministry-linked Institute for American Studies, insisted that “the DPRK will not move even 1 mm (further)” without a “corresponding reply” from the United States.
“If the U.S. keeps behaving arrogant without showing any change in its stand…the word “byungjin” (simultaneously conducting economic construction and building up nuclear forces) may appear again,” it said.
North Korea has in recent months touted its continued long-range missile and nuclear test moratorium and partial steps to disable the Sohae missile engine test stand as “proactive and good-will measures” gestures that deserve American reciprocity.
Secretary Pompeo in an interview with Fox News on Sunday dismissed Friday’s comments as “stray voltage.”
“I’m not worried about rhetoric. We’ve seen this as we go through negotiations,” he said.
“We’re very focused. We know with whom we’re negotiating. We know what their positions are. And President Trump’s made his position very clear: No economic relief until we have achieved our ultimate objective.”
One expert suggested the meeting’s postponement could be related to the results of Wednesday’s midterm elections.
“Since Trump just lost the House, he may be wanting to re-calibrate his approach on the DPRK,” said David Kim, a former State Department East Asia Desk officer.
“Note that the House now has the ability to subpoena the President and this will probably affect Trump’s Russia investigations (Bob Mueller), let alone make it more difficult to conduct diplomacy with North Korea,” he continued.
“Plus, he probably wants to meet with new Congressional and Senate leadership in coming days and may not have the bandwidth to entertain Kim Yong Chol at the White House like he did back in June.”
Featured image: State Department