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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean negotiators continue to hold discussions with U.S. counterparts despite sitting out this week’s ASEAN regional forum in Bangkok, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an event Friday morning.
Asked when his patience would run out on North Korea amid recent missile tests and stalled working-level talks, Pompeo insisted that observers “should never doubt what we may be communicating to the North Koreans.”
“There are conversations going on… even as we speak,” he added in his discussion on stage with Bloomberg TV, following an address on Washington’s economic engagement in the region.
Appearing to confirm that his DPRK counterpart foreign minister Ri Yong Ho and others had still not shown up to the forum, Pompeo said he “always look[s] forward to a chance to talk to them, I wish they would have come here.”
“I think it would have given us an opportunity to have another set of conversations, and I hope it won’t be too long before I have a chance to do that.”
“I want very much these discussions to proceed with the North Koreans,” the Secretary of State added later in his remarks. “We want to really get past the discussions and get to execution on the ground.”
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea policy Stephen Biegun accompanied Pompeo on his trip to Thailand, and is expected to engage allies and others in the region on the situation with Pyongyang despite their absence at the forum.
When asked how he expects to make progress in talks when the North Koreans chose not to attend this year – their first absence in a decade – Pompeo stressed that there are “lots of conversations taking place.”
He also repeated familiar talking points on achieving the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea… through the use of diplomacy,” as well as a dubious characterization of the agreement signed by Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June 2018.
While he said that “Chairman Kim committed to… fully denuclearize his country in exchange for [what] President Trump describes [as] a brighter future for the North Korean people,” the agreement puts it differently.
According to the second paragraph of the text, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
In December, a statement released by DPRK state media clarified their definition of denuclearization, saying that “the U.S. should recognize the meaning of the term ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,’ and should especially get right to work studying geography.”
“When referring to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it should be understood that this means removing all nuclear threats, not only from North and South Korean territory, but also from the surrounding area aimed at the Korean Peninsula,” the statement read.
But though his interviewer raised the fact that the recent spate of missile tests by the North technically constitute a violation of UN Security Council sanctions resolutions, Pompeo did not specifically address the latest tests conducted Friday morning.
President Trump did address the tests while speaking to reporters from Washington just hours after they were conducted, however, saying he had “no problem” with them and that the U.S. and North Korea “never made an agreement on [short-range missiles].”
In his remarks in Bangkok, Pompeo pointed to sanctions enforcement on North Korea as remaining a primary goal in the interim, and that the U.S. continues to work with countries in the region on the issue.
When asked about China’s efforts towards this end – often criticized for their soft-touch enforcement – the U.S. Secretary of State defended Beijing, saying they have played “a big role.”
“I actually applaud the enforcement efforts that the Chinese have undertaken under the UN Security Council resolutions,” he said. “They have truly been a bulwark, they have been helpful.”
Referring to his meeting with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi the previous day, Pompeo said the two discussed North Korea and that Wang “reiterated their goal for there to be a diplomatic resolution to this as well, and their continued commitment to enforce” sanctions.
Pompeo is also expected to hold discussions with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Friday both separately and in a trilateral format, to help mediate tensions between the two allies but also to reaffirm their support on a coordinated approach to North Korea.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Mike Pompeo’s twitter