Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered the first snapshot of a timeline for North Korean denuclearization Wednesday, telling reporters on a trip to Seoul that he is “hopeful” Pyongyang will show clear evidence of a “major disarmament” before President Trump’s term in office ends in January 2021.
While the joint statement signed a day earlier in Singapore by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said only broadly that the North Korean leader expressed an “unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” it did not go into detail on when that may occur or how it may be verified by Washington.
The Trump administration has sought to dampen what has been a wave of Washington groupthink criticism of the summit, stressing that the Singapore meeting was a historic first step in what will now evolve, potentially quickly, into a concrete set of steps to end North Korea’s nuclear programs in exchange for eventual economic sanctions relief for Pyongyang.
Mr. Pompeo, who arrived in South Korea on Wednesday before heading to Japan and China for briefings on the summit, said he was confident that the North Korean delegation fully understood in private conversations leading up to the joint statement that Pyongyang has to verifiably and entirely destroy and abandon its program and must quickly show progress on the commitment.
Critics have seized on the absence of the words “verifiable” and “irrevocable” from the Trump-Kim statement to argue that the North Koreans got the better deal out of the summit.
During an at-times testy exchange with reporters traveling with him, Mr. Pompeo called it “insulting and ridiculous, and frankly ludicrous” that private analysts and the news media homed in on the wording in the joint statement. He also downplayed concerns about the lack of a public timeline for specific actions by Pyongyang.
“A lot has been made of the fact that the word ‘verifiable’ didn’t appear in the agreement,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Let me assure you that the [word] ‘complete’ encompasses ‘verifiable’ in the minds of everyone concerned. One can’t completely denuclearize without validating, authenticating — you pick the word.”
Mr. Pompeo also insisted that Mr. Trump was “unambiguous” with Mr. Kim about his decision to freeze that he called “provocative” U.S.-South Korean military drills as the talks proceed, which critics also said represented a concession to the North. He said the president “made very clear” that the freeze depends on Pyongyang’s commitment to positive denuclearization talks.
If the U.S. at any time decides “productive, good-faith negotiations” are not occurring, then the freeze will no longer be in effect, the secretary of state said.
Mr. Pompeo made the comments against a backdrop of skepticism in national security circles over the extent to which Washington scored any tangible or permanent concessions during Tuesday’s summit, which many U.S. analysts say legitimized the young dictator of a nation on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and widely accused of human rights abuses.
While North Korea’s state-controlled media have quickly spun the outcome of the Singapore summit as a victory in which the U.S. gave major concessions to Mr. Kim, sources close to the White House say Mr. Trump received personal promises from the North Korean leader about actions Pyongyang would soon take to show it is serous about abandoning its weapons.
North Korea already vowed to dismantle the country’s main testing ground for nuclear bombs, the Punggye-ri site that features long tubes running into and beneath a mountain, where a powerful atomic detonation occurred in September.
Recent satellite imagery shows that structures around the facility have been razed, but U.S. intelligence officials last month cast doubts on Pyongyang’s claim to have destroyed the facility because international inspectors were not on hand to witness the action.
During his press conference immediately after the Singapore summit, Mr. Trump said Mr. Kimtold him that a separate facility was also being dismantled. “Chairman Kim has told me that North Korea is already destroying a major missile engine testing site,” the president said.
While the joint statement did not refer to the action, Mr. Trump suggested it was a concession that U.S. negotiators fought for in private and won. However, a high-level U.S. intelligence source said the issue was sensitive, not only because of uncertainty over the North Korean promise but also because of the manner in which Mr. Trump spoke about it.
With cameras rolling from news organizations around the world, the president said U.S. officials detected the site’s location “because of the heat that it emits.” His comments offered insight into a U.S. intelligence-gathering capability not previously revealed, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
If the negotiation process breaks down suddenly, the source added, Pyongyang could use its newfound awareness of this U.S. intelligence capability to develop cooling mechanisms to hide testing sites.
Mr. Pompeo declined Wednesday to discuss whether a private timeline was set for North Korea to prove it has destroyed the site or taken other technical actions. Instead, the secretary of state spoke broadly of denuclearization, suggesting that U.S. and other international specialists expect to be invited into North Korea to inspect.
“I’m hopeful we can move that forward fairly quickly as well,” he said. “We have big teams ready to go. … We’ve been working on it for months to have all of the relevant parties from our labs, the smartest folks — by the way, not just Americans, but partners around the world — [and] we’re prepared to execute.”
Even if there is no private timeline, the negotiations process will face its first major test by August when the next round of U.S.-South Korean joint military drills were scheduled. The drills have been a staple of the American military presence on the Korean Peninsula and offer regular reassurances to South Korea, Japan and other allies in the region that the U.S. is prepared to deter any North Korean aggression.
Victor Cha, the top North Korea analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the drills will be “the first real test of whether there is any meat on the bones of this joint statement.”
Another major test looms when the U.N. General Assembly meets in New York in September. Mr. Cha predicted that China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, will likely call for Mr. Kim to be invited.
“I don’t know exactly what the timing will be for our next conversation with North Korea,” the secretary of state said. “I would anticipate it will be fairly quickly. … I don’t know exactly what form that will take, but I’m very confident that by some time in the next week or so we will begin the engagement.”