Written by David E. Sanger
Vice President Mike Pence told US ambassadors Wednesday that North Korea has failed to take any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons, even as President Donald Trump is moving toward a second meeting with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.
“While the president has started a promising dialogue with Chairman Kim,” Pence told the gathering at the State Department, “we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region.”
With the unequivocal statement, Pence seemed to directly contradict the president’s claim on Twitter, after his first summit meeting in June, that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” At the time, many of Trump’s top aides cringed at the declaration, fearing it would take the economic pressure off the North to disarm.
The fear seems well founded: China and Russia have resumed many economic enterprises with North Korea.
The timing of Pence’s comments was significant, coming just before Pyongyang’s lead negotiator over the nuclear program, Kim Yong Chol, is expected to arrive in Washington to meet on Friday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The North Korean negotiator is usually not permitted to travel more than a short distance from the U.N. headquarters in New York, where Pompeo met him last year, so the invitation to Washington was seen as a gesture to make arrangements for the summit meeting.
Kim, the negotiator, is a former general and intelligence chief believed to be about 74 and is viewed as a member of the inner circle of North Korean leaders. He is also widely regarded as the architect of an attack on a South Korean ship in 2010 that killed 46 South Korean sailors.
But so far, his meetings with Pompeo, in both Pyongyang and New York, have yielded few results.
While the United States has demanded that North Korea turn over its nuclear weapons before it sees any significant sanctions relief, the North has argued for a step-by-step approach — including that the United States withdraw troops and weapons from the Korean Peninsula.
Breaking that logjam will be the key to the meeting with Pompeo, US officials said. North Korea has still not taken the first step demanded by the United States: providing an inventory of its nuclear weapons, its stockpiles of nuclear material, its production facilities, missile fabrication plans and launch sites.
The North has instead said that it would give Washington a target list. Trump’s negotiators have argued that they already have a list but want evidence that the North was being truthful in its declarations.
Kim, the negotiator, is expected to bring a letter from Kim Jong Un about the proposed second summit meeting with the president. Trump has taken to collecting past correspondence and showing it off to journalists, among others, in the Oval Office.
Two months ago, Pence seemed to be clearing the way for a second meeting, saying that the North Korean leader did not necessarily have to provide the inventory before sitting down with Trump. That appeared to be a backing down of US demands, so the vice president’s tone on Wednesday was notable for its sharpness.
Pence did not say, however, what conditions North Korea would have to take to reach some kind of a formal declaration from the United States that would replace the 1953 armistice on the Korean Peninsula with a peace agreement.