Newly appointed United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in North Korea in order to finalize details of an upcoming summit between the two heads of state, media outlets reported Tuesday night.
Landing early Wednesday morning local time, Pompeo admitted a degree of uncertainty about the success of his visit, which, in addition to ironing out details concerning the planned meeting, officials also hope will bring about the release of three Americans held hostage by the Kim regime. Pompeo discussed these concerns with two reporters traveling with him, The Washington Post reports:
Pompeo said he plans to raise again the U.S. desire that the three men be freed, adding, “It’d be a great gesture if they’d agree to do so.”
The main purpose of Pompeo’s visit to North Korea is to finalize a time and location for the summit between Trump and the North Korean leader, how long their talks will last and to clarify expectations.
“We also want to make sure what our expectations are not,” Pompeo said. “We are not going to head down the path we headed down before. We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives. We’re not going to do this in small increments, where the world is coerced into relieving economic pressures.”
The prisoners, who are said to have recently been transferred to a hotel outside of Pyongyang, have featured prominently in negotiations between the two countries. Two of them– Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk, professors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST), respectively – have been held since 2017, while the third, Korean-American businessman Kim Dong-chul, was apprehended in 2015. At least two of the men, Dong-chul and Hak-song, are Christian missionaries, according to two separate Reuters reports (here and here).
Pompeo’s arrival falls shortly after North Korea issued a warning to the United States on Sunday, May 6, over rhetoric from Washington suggesting that the hermit nation’s conciliatory moves of late were due to pressure from the U.S. A North Korean spokesman pointed to bravado from the Trump administration regarding its tough approach to the situation as “deliberately provoking” the Kim regime and sending the “hardly-won atmosphere of dialogue…back to square one.” It also comes amid closer coordination between North Korea and China, with whose president Kim Jong Un has met twice in two months.
This is the second official visit to North Korea for the former CIA Director, who made an earlier top-secret trip there over Easter weekend, shortly after being nominated for Secretary of State, as part of an effort to lay the groundwork for talks between Trump and Kim over denuclearization.
The diplomatic tones mark a departure from the contentious U.S./North Korea relations during President Trump’s first year in office, when the DPRK made several aggressive moves, such as returning a brutally injured Otto Warmbier to the United States in June, only for him to die six days later. The country also tested its first ever intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in July of that year, and fired two more of them before year’s end, calling them a “stern warning” to the United States against the use of force. The tensions culminated when North Korea twice threatened to unleash a “salvo of missiles” against U.S. island territory Guam following Twitter attacks from the President.
However, in spite of the hostility, North Korea has recently made overtures of peace with longtime nemesis South Korea, joining the country in signing the Panmunjom Declaration on April 27, helping bring about a formal end to the Korean War. They have additionally expressed willingness to meet with American officials, including President Trump, to discuss denuclearization. It remains unclear whether Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” and economic sanctions are chiefly responsible for this abrupt change in tone, or if it’s due to the April collapse of North Korea’s main nuclear test site.
As a final piece of context behind the visit, Trump announced Pompeo’s trip while declaring the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, a move which might portray the U.S. as unreliable and thus adversely affect negotiations with North Korea.
Nevertheless, the President expressed his optimism towards the meeting during his remarks, opining that “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.”
Why It Matters
The negotiations with North Korea, with whom the United States has technically been at war since the 1950s, will prove to be the first major test of President Trump’s mettle as a foreign leader and self-proclaimed “best dealmaker there is.” Tens of thousands of lives in both Koreas are contingent upon the continued civility between the involved countries, as is the image of both the United States and its President on the world stage. Pompeo’s visit will be crucial in setting up the details of those negotiations.
Can President Trump muster the discipline required to handle such a daunting prospect without repeating any of his past faux pas with foreign leaders? Well, to quote his words to a reporter today: “We’ll all soon be finding out.”
President Trump has announced that the 3 American detainees held in North Korea have been released and are on the way home with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo:
I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018