By Nike Ching
The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is traveling to North Korea, preparing for the upcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
“Plans are being made. Relationships are building. Hopefully, a deal will happen and, with the help of China, South Korea, and Japan, a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone,” said Trump on Tuesday at the White House.
The chief U.S. diplomat is also on a mission, hoping to secure the release of three Americans detained by Pyongyang.
“We’ve been asking for the release of these detainees for 17 months,” Pompeo said en route to North Korea. “We’ll talk about it again. It’d be a great gesture if they’d agree to do so.”
Three Korean-Americans currently are imprisoned in North Korea. Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were teaching at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. They were separately detained in 2017, and accused of participating in anti-state activities and trying to overthrow the government.
The third detainee, Kim Dong Chul, was arrested in Rason on the northeast tip of North Korea in October 2015. He was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labor after being convicted of espionage.
Pompeo’s latest trip to North Korea came just weeks after he met with Kim.
“The first time it was truly an intelligence effort” to validate Kim’s intention, said Pompeo, while the second visit is hoping to “put in place a framework,” and “conditions” for a successful summit between the two presidents.
“We are not going to head back down the path that we headed down before. We’re not going to relieve sanctions until such time as we achieved our objectives. We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure,” Pompeo said.
‘New and bold approach’
Senior State Department officials traveling with Pompeo said Washington is taking a “new and bold approach,” while continuing to consult closely with America’s allies, including Japan and South Korea.
“We — the secretary — will be listening for signs from North Korea that things have substantively changed since Kim’s declaration on New Year’s Eve to mass produce nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them,” said a senior official.
Officials traveling with Pompeo include White House National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Matt Pottinger, State Department policy planning director Brian Hook, and acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Heather Nauert.
Experts told VOA on Tuesday that Pompeo’s second trip to North Korea, following Kim’s second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, shows that negotiations have reached a critical juncture.
“Each side is now negotiating for maximum benefit to their security,” said Dennis Wilder, who served as the senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. “The issue of sequencing steps that each side must take is one of the toughest parts of any negotiation of this magnitude.”
“It suggests that a major deal is under consideration that involves major concessions on each side,” Wilder told VOA.
‘More than declarations’
Other experts said there can’t be a summit unless North Korea were to release the three American prisoners.
“I would expect Secretary Pompeo to bring home these captives on his plane — unless North Korea was for some reason getting cold feet,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at The Center for the National Interest in Washington.
Atlantic Council’s senior fellow Robert Manning told VOA that what the Trump administration is looking for is “more than declarations.”
The U.S. is eyeing “commitments to dismantle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and milestones to benchmark,” Manning said.
Washington has demanded Pyongyang give up chemical and biological weapons, in addition to nuclear weapons and programs.
Tuesday, in a readout after Chinese President Xi’s call with Trump, Beijing said Xi stressed his support of the planned meeting between Trump and Kim, while asking Washington to take Pyongyang’s “reasonable security concerns” into consideration.
The call between Chinese and American leaders came just hours after Xi met with Kim on Monday and Tuesday in the northeastern Chinese port city of Dalian, their second meeting since late March.
In a statement published by Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kim told Xi that the realization of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a consistent and clear position of North Korea.
“As long as relevant parties eliminate the hostile policy and security threats against North Korea, Pyongyang does not need to have nuclear weapons, and denuclearization is achievable,” said Kim, according to the Chinese statement.
VOA’s Wayne Lee contributed to this report.