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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
A range of sanctions are up for negotiation if the U.S. achieves “a substantial step” towards denuclearization through the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview Sunday.
Speaking in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Pompeo insisted that “the core economic sanctions, the sanctions that prevent countries from conducting trade, creating wealth for North Korea, those sanctions are definitely going to remain in place” until complete denuclearization.
But he also said “there are other things we could do – exchanges of people, lots of other ways that North Korea is sanctioned today that if we get a substantial step and move forward we could certainly provide an outlet which would demonstrate our commitment to the process as well.”
Kim Jong Un “promised he’d denuclearize,” Pompeo added. “We hope he’ll make a big step towards that in the week ahead.”
A source familiar with Washington’s position on negotiations told NK News the U.S. has indeed arrived at the position that some sanctions relief will be required in order to keep North Korea at the negotiating table.
The U.S. is as a result hoping to draw focus towards big-ticket, headline items at the summit while loosening some sanctions, but including mechanisms to ensure the measures automatically kick back in if North Korea does not hold up its end of any such agreement, the source added.
The second meeting of Trump and Kim is scheduled to begin this Wednesday in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, and while it has been billed as a two-day event, Pompeo suggested that will depend on how things go the first day.
“Might be one day, might be two days. I’m confident that if it requires even more time, we’ll commit to that,” the Secretary of State said in another interview on Sunday with Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Pompeo also sought to temper expectations for summit outcomes in his Sunday interviews, telling Fox News that “I hope we can make a real substantive step forward this week. It may not happen, but I hope that it will.”
“There may have to be another summit. We may not get everything done this week. We hope we’ll make a substantial step along the way,” he said.
Pompeo focused again on what has emerged as the key public goal in the short term for the U.S.: “reducing the threat” of the North’s nuclear weapons to the United States.
“I hope to achieve what the ultimate end state is: creating a brighter future for North Korea and reducing the threat to the United States from the nuclear weapons that are today in North Korea,” he said.
When asked if he was expecting the North to offer up details of its nuclear program such as a list of facilities or weapons inventory, Pompeo appeared to avoid the question, saying instead that Kim Jong Un “unequivocally stated that he would denuclearize his country” in the first summit with Trump.
Again focusing on expectations of making gradual progress in the process in Vietnam, Pompeo said to CNN that “a real step, a demonstrable [sic], verifiable step, is something that I know President Trump is very focused on achieving.”
However, other comments from the Secretary raise questions over how the U.S. defines the so-called reduction of risk or threat from the North’s nuclear arsenal.
When asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper if he thought North Korea remained a nuclear threat despite the President’s previous comments that “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” Pompeo answered in the affirmative.
But he also said “this commitment that Chairman Kim made” in Singapore to denuclearize has already “substantially taken down the risk to the American people.”
As for what concessions U.S. may bring to the table in Vietnam this week, Pompeo suggested Washington could serve as an alternative security guarantor to China, towards whom he says North Korea is growing weary.
“We’ve also shared with [Kim Jong Un] that we are happy to make sure that North Korea’s security assurances – they’re worried about China – that the security assurances that they need can be provided in a way that is reasonable,” he said on CNN.
He also reiterated U.S. offers of economic assistance, saying “countries from around the world will come, make his economy one that looks more like South Korea’s economy than the one that exists in North Korea today.”
If the North does not accede to such offers, it risks “remaining a pariah state, remaining a nation that is unable to trade, unable to grow, unable to take care of its own people,” Pompeo said.
The source familiar with Washington’s position in negotiations told NK News the offer of an infrastructure package was in the works – one which would comprise financial contributions from the North’s neighbors and other western nations, but not from the U.S.
This package, however, would not be delivered until substantial steps on denuclearization are achieved, the source added, again pointing to existing questions over how this will be defined by Trump’s team going forward.
Secretary Pompeo confirmed earlier reports that North Korean and U.S. negotiators have been holding talks in Hanoi daily since Thursday, and that he will soon arrive in Vietnam to participate in the talks himself starting Tuesday local time.
The State Department announced later on Sunday that Pompeo will be in Vietnam from February 26-28 to participate in the summit as well as “bilateral meetings with Vietnamese leaders.”
President Trump, meanwhile, said in a series of tweets early Sunday that he would depart Washington on Monday morning.
Trump thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for their assistance enforcing UN sanctions on North Korea at their shared border, and again stated the economic incentives the U.S. is offering in talks with Pyongyang.
“Chairman Kim realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World. Because of its location and people (and him), it has more potential for rapid growth than any other nation!” Trump tweeted.
Teasing his own expectations for summit outcomes, the President pondered: “Denuclearization?”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Secretary Pompeo’s Twitter