A North Korean flag flying over North Korea’s Gijungdong village is seen through binoculars (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

North Korea Slams U.S. ‘Gangster-Like’ Demands at Nuclear Talks

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea slammed the U.S. position on denuclearization during two days of meetings with Mike Pompeo as “gangster-like,” hours after the secretary of state cited “good-faith negotiations” with his counterparts in Pyongyang.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a lengthy English-language statement released by the state media outlet Korea Central News Agency, said the U.S. side had created “trouble” by issuing the same kind of proposals that past administrations had sought.

The assessment, so different to one Pompeo had offered reporters earlier, suggested -- as Korea analysts had feared -- that the two sides remain far apart on their goals for talks on denuclearization, and that North Korea’s promises are a facade. That’s despite Pompeo’s past assessments and President Donald Trump’s upbeat remarks after his June meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.

“It appears Trump took his victory lap a tad too soon,” Bruce Klingner, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said in an email. “The diplomatic path remains open, but it will be far bumpier and far longer than the Trump administration had believed and described publicly.”

‘Counter to the Spirit’

In its statement, North Korea said the U.S. side “came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization,” adding that the U.S. call for “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID, ran “counter to the spirit of the Singapore summit.”

Trust between the two sides was now at a “dangerous” stage that could lead the country to falter in its commitment to give up nuclear weapons, according to the statement, which added that North Korea still has faith in Trump.

The statement came a few hours after Pompeo departed Pyongyang following meetings led by Kim Yong Chol, a senior aide to Kim. Pompeo is spending the night in Tokyo, where he’ll brief officials from Japan and South Korea on Sunday before flying to Vietnam.

The secretary was under pressure to deliver a more concrete disarmament plan to flesh out the two leaders’ vague, 1-1/2 page document from the Singapore meeting, which provided no timetable for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

‘Complicated Issues’

Before he left Pyongyang, Pompeo said U.S. negotiators and their North Korean counterparts discussed the idea of a full declaration of North Korean weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, and setting a timeline for giving them up.

“These are complicated issues, but we made progress on almost all of the central issues,’’ Pompeo told reporters on the tarmac, following his third visit to North Korea. “We had productive, good-faith negotiations.”

Pompeo said North Korea, in “many hours of talks’’ at a walled-off guest-house outside downtown Pyongyang, reiterated its commitment to denuclearization. Kim Yong Chol ended Pompeo’s visit on a positive note, telling the top U.S. diplomat just before he boarded his plane, “We will produce an outcome, results.’’

Yet the state media commentary was a setback for Pompeo, who had hoped that he could hand off future negotiations to working groups settled on by the two sides at the latest meeting. After his Asia swing, Pompeo heads for other thorny U.S. foreign-policy events -- the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels starting on July 11, and Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16.

Sleep Deprived?

Despite the secretary’s positive depiction, signs had emerged earlier that things weren’t going as well as hoped. Pompeo didn’t have a meeting with Kim Jong Un, as he had on his two previous trips to North Korea’s capital. And earlier in the day, he had a curiously testy exchange with Kim Yong Chol, who mused that Pompeo may not have slept well the night before because of the important issues they had discussed.

“Director Kim, I slept just fine,” Pompeo responded.

Still, Pompeo could point to no concrete achievement from the talks, aside from an agreement for the two sides to meet again on or around July 12 in Panmunjom, the border village between the two Koreas, to discuss returning the remains of U.S. soldiers from the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Pompeo said North Korea had confirmed it intended to destroy a missile-engine testing facility and the two sides discussed the “modalities’’ of what that would look like. The countries also agreed to create working groups to be overseen by Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines who’s handled some lower-level discussions.

Decades of Differences

All along, experts had wondered how the U.S. and North Korea would bridge differences that have bedeviled their talks for decades and only seemed exacerbated under Trump. The U.S. has insisted that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons for good before receiving relief from crippling sanctions. North Korea, meanwhile, indicated after Singapore that the two sides had agreed to a synchronized, step-by-step approach.

“Arms control agreements are tough -- they have to be very specific, with real verification provisions,” James Russell, an associate professor in national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, said in an email. “There has to be a symmetry of interests between the negotiating parties,” and there was no such symmetry at the U.S.-North Korea summit, he said.

In its statement calling the U.S. stance “regrettable,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said the U.S. is unilaterally demanding denuclearization and trying to postpone discussion of declaring an end to the Korean War.

Publicity Seekers

It also derided the “great publicity” made by the U.S. about the “suspension of one or two joint military exercises” with South Korea. Such war games “can be resumed anytime,” versus the U.S. demand for an “irreversible step” by North Korea on its nuclear testing grounds, the statement said.

Pyongyang’s message was “clearly based on its long-standing position” that denuclearization means “global arms control” in which North Korea abandon its arsenal when all other nuclear powers, including the U.S., abandon theirs, said Klingner, the former CIA analyst.

A failure in the talks would amount to an embarrassment for Pompeo, whom Trump has assigned to lead the negotiations and who’s said repeatedly that Kim Jong Un was ready to commit to something no North Korean government had delivered on in decades.

‘Wonderful Paper’

It would be worse for Trump himself. Since the summit, Trump has declared the North Korean nuclear threat over, even though the country’s leaders promised nothing in a joint declaration signed by Kim and Trump that they hadn’t agreed to many times before.

Returning to Washington from Singapore, Trump tweeted that “North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer - sleep well tonight!” At a rally in Montana on July 5, he said that “we signed a wonderful paper saying they’re going to denuclearize their whole thing. It’s going to all happen.”

“Can’t really put lipstick on this pig,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who was a director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “There was not even a promise of more high-level meetings, only working-level, which had not achieved much anyway.”

Critics and analysts who study North Korea have argued that the country’s commitment to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’’ as spelled out in the joint declaration from the Singapore summit, doesn’t go as far as other promises to give up its nuclear weapons that Pyongyang had made -- and reneged upon -- in the past.

Denuclearization Challenges

In recent days, intelligence reports have shown that North Korea is continuing work at a key rocket-engine facility. The U.S. has also stopped using the catchphrase “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,’’ which it had insisted upon happening before North Korea gets any relief from a crippling sanctions regime, before Pompeo apparently brought it up again during the latest talks.

That change raised suspicion that the U.S. was softening its demands for the country, an argument that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert had insisted on Friday wasn’t true.

Nauert didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about North Korea’s latest statement. Trump, spending a long weekend at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, was also silent on the developments on Twitter.

Pompeo’s visit was the highest level meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials since Trump and Kim held their unprecedented summit. The next steps are unclear.

“Trump tried to sell this as a quickly achievable deal to denuclearize, and now Pompeo and team are tasked with the impossible task of pushing forward on denuclearization without a shared understanding with Pyongyang,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.