Pompeo may be returning to Pyongyang soon

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Pompeo may be returning to Pyongyang soon

North Korean and U.S. diplomats secretly held discussions in the inter-Korean village of Panmunjom last Sunday, according to diplomatic sources Tuesday, amid speculations that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may be making another visit to Pyongyang soon.

The two sides discussed denuclearization and a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War at the North Korean-controlled Tongilgak building, along with Pompeo’s possible trip, said sources. They were expected to hold additional meetings this week.

If discussions go well, it could lead to Pompeo’s fourth visit to Pyongyang and possibly a breakthrough in the current impasse in denuclearization negotiations.

Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, was asked to confirm the working-level talks in the demilitarized zone over the weekend and if they were about Pompeo’s next visit to Pyongyang. “Yeah,” she said to a reporter’s question in a press briefing Tuesday, but clarified, “We have no meetings or no plans and no travel to announce at this point.” Nauert said she didn’t have “anything to share” on any previous meetings.

But negotiations, conversations and meetings between the U.S. government and North Korea will become “part of our regular course of business, where these will be normal,” she added. “We will have correspondence with the North Korean government as we look to denuclearize North Korea.”

Pompeo made a two-day visit to Pyongyang on July 5, his first to the country after the June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. He made two other trips to Pyongyang earlier this year, first at the beginning of April in his capacity as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, then again in May as secretary of state.

There has been little progress in negotiations following Pompeo’s visit in July, though North Korea returned 55 cases containing the remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the Korean War. Since Pompeo is seen to have returned relatively empty-handed after his last trip to the North, another visit to Pyongyang may be needed.

Analysts have said a feasible means of breaking the deadlock would be North Korea releasing a detailed list of its nuclear stockpile and weapons facilities, which it has refused to do, in return for a formal declaration of the end of the Korean War, which ended with an armistice agreement.

Should working-level discussions in Panmunjom go smoothly, Pompeo would likely be able to yield more fruitful results in a fourth trip to Pyongyang.

In terms of progress on the denuclearization negotiations, Nauert said in the press briefing “those are conversations that we’re having behind the scenes,” adding that they “continue to work in good faith to move forward on that.”

She elaborated, “I can tell you that conversations with the government of North Korea are becoming a far more normal matter, and that is exactly why we won’t be reading out every detail, every time we meet with them, every phone conversation or email that we exchange with them.”

When asked about Washington’s position on declaring an end to the Korean War, Nauert replied, “We support a peace regime, a peace mechanism by which countries can move forward toward peace.” But the “main focus is on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and that’s something we’ve been very clear with many governments about,” she said.

Pompeo signaled optimism ahead of reports that he may be making another visit to the North, tweeting Tuesday about his phone conversation with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on inter-Korean talks with high-level officials in Panmunjom Monday. He said the U.S. and South Korean governments “remain in close cooperation to ensure the final, fully verified denuclearization” of the North, adding, “We believe progress can be made.”

In the inter-Korean meeting Monday, the two sides agreed that a third summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim will take place in September in Pyongyang. Kim will also desire some progress in negotiations with the United States if he wants to address the United Nations General Assembly as a new session opens in New York in mid-September, a platform for him to secure international recognition for his country.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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