Pompeo hints at restarting talks with Pyongyang

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Pompeo hints at restarting talks with Pyongyang

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted at the “very real possibility” of the resumption of working-level denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States on Sunday, highlighted by the recent cordial exchange of letters between their two leaders.

“We’re ready to go,” said Pompeo in a briefing at the U.S. State Department in Washington, after confirming that U.S. President Donald Trump had sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “We’re literally prepared to begin at a moment’s notice if the North Koreans indicate that they are prepared for those discussions.”

Kim sent a personal letter to Trump earlier this month as the two leaders marked the one-year anniversary of their historic first summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.

North Korean state media reported Sunday that Trump had in turn sent a letter in reply to Kim, who is said to be currently contemplating its “interesting content.”

When asked by a reporter on the possibility of working-level talks with Pyongyang resuming in the near future, Pompeo replied that North Korea’s remarks “suggest that that may well be a very real possibility.”

Pompeo, who is set to accompany Trump to East Asia later this week, said he is “hopeful” that the letter exchanges “will provide a good foundation for us to begin to continue the important discussions with the North Koreans to denuclearize the peninsula.”

The exchange of letters is the first indication of movement toward resuming negotiations since the second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, which ended on Feb. 28 with no deal as the two sides failed to narrow their differences over the scope of denuclearization and the timing of sanctions relief for the North.

But Pompeo was quick to mention that currently “some 80-plus percent of the North Korean economy is sanctioned.”

Washington last week sanctioned the Moscow-based Russian Financial Society for providing financial services that helped North Korea evade sanctions.

President Trump on Friday also extended for one year the declaration of national emergency related to North Korea in a notice sent to the U.S. Congress, which maintained sanctions because the “risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula” and the actions and policies of the North Korean government continue to pose an “extraordinary threat” to the United States.

The United States has also continued to crack down on North Korea’s illicit ship-to-ship transfers, which the regime uses to evade the ban on coal and petroleum products, to continue its pressure campaign on Pyongyang.

There will be a whirlwind of diplomacy later this week as key players gather in the region to discuss the North Korea issue, which will be a key opportunity to create a breakthrough in the currently stalled denuclearization negotiations.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, is expected to visit Seoul this week for talks with South Korean officials ahead of Trump’s visit to Seoul this weekend. Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, just last week visited Washington and held talks with Biegun, where they jointly spoke at the Atlantic Council. There, Biegun called for a “flexible approach.”

There has been speculation on whether during his visit to South Korea Biegun may contact North Korean officials, possibly at the border village of Panmunjom, the location of many North-U.S. working-level meetings.

The Blue House has also been anticipating some momentum in the North-U.S. dialogue following the exchange of the letters between Kim and Trump, something South Korea has also been kept informed about.

South Korea’s Blue House spokesperson Ko Min-jung said through a statement Sunday, “Our government views the exchange of personal letters between the North Korean and U.S. leaders positively, as it leads to momentum in the North-U.S. talks.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Kim held their fifth summit last Thursday and Friday in Pyongyang. Xi may have a message from Kim when he meets with Trump at the Group of 20, or G-20 summit, which takes places in Osaka, Japan on Friday and Saturday.

On the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Trump, accompanied by Pompeo, will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “to coordinate on the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” and “to discuss ways to strengthen trilateral cooperation” with South Korea on a “unified approach toward” North Korea and “other shared challenges,” according to the U.S. State Department in a statement Sunday.

Pompeo will also accompany Trump for his summit with President Moon Jae-in, and the State department said that Trump and Moon will “continue their close coordination on efforts to achieve” the final and fully verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.

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