Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, left, shakes hands with Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, during the inter-Korean summit in Paju, South Korea. (Source: Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps/Pool via Bloomberg)

U.S. Accelerates Talks With North Korea After Kim-Moon Summit

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called Wednesday for a new round of talks with North Korea with the goal of ridding the North of nuclear weapons by the end of Donald Trump’s first term, saying he was heartened by progress made at a summit this week between the two Koreas.

In a statement, Pompeo said the U.S. welcomed Kim Jong Un’s promise to dismantle a missile test site -- under the eye of international inspectors -- and move to shutter North Korea’s main Yongbyon nuclear production site if the U.S. takes what the North calls “corresponding measures.”

Pompeo signaled that reciprocation may be coming.

“On the basis of these important commitments, the United States is prepared to engage immediately in negotiations to transform U.S.-DPRK relations,” Pompeo said, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pompeo invited North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho to meet him in New York next week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly and for North Korean officials to meet his envoy for the issue, Stephen Biegun, starting a process toward denuclearization by 2021 and a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

That’s language that both sides have used to describe a treaty to end the Korean War, which was never formally declared over. North Korea has sought such an accord, but the U.S. has been reluctant to do so for fear it would add to pressure to remove the thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea.

The U.S. announcement followed two days of talks between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the first visit by a South Korean leader to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 11 years. While both sides hailed progress, the talks only provoked further debate over the question that has bedeviled outsiders all along: Whether North Korea, after years of broken promises, is genuinely prepared to give up its nuclear weapons.

Both Pompeo’s statement and the agreement Moon and Kim signed in Pyongyang left wide room for interpretation and raised doubts about whether the two sides were talking past each other. For example, Pompeo’s statement said the U.S. welcomed a commitment to dismantle Yongbyon “in the presence of U.S. and IAEA inspectors.”

But the declaration agreed to by Moon and Kim made no such commitment, and didn’t mention inspectors from the U.S., the International Atomic Energy Agency, or anywhere else. Instead, it only said North Korea might be willing to dismantle Yongbyon “as the United States takes corresponding measures.”

Mack Truck

“You can drive a Mack truck through all the holes in this thing,” said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s really discouraging.”

In fact, the Pompeo statement’s optimism and confidence -- coupled with Trump’s own tweet on Tuesday night that erroneously said Kim had “agreed to allow Nuclear inspections” provoked a flurry of speculation among North Korea analysts that the U.S. and North Korea must be engaging in separate, secret talks that came up with a different set of agreements.

Some experts took a more straightforward approach, saying Pompeo’s statement was only an attempt to match Trump’s own exuberance. While Pompeo has repeatedly preached caution about a deal, Trump has declared the North Korean nuclear threat over and expressed confidence he could come up with a deal with Kim.

“The statement came hours after POTUS welcomed the outcome of the inter-Korean summit, so I took at as Secretary Pompeo reading the room,” said Jung Pak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Studies. “The statement also twists the actual wording of the Pyongyang statement to make it more significant than it actually is.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert didn’t immediately respond to a request to explain the discrepancies.

In Pyongyang, both leaders hailed their latest agreement as groundbreaking in emotional statements. They agreed on a range of measures to bolster Korean relations, including connecting railways, reuniting families, preparing to restart economic projects and withdrawing guard posts from their heavily militarized border.

Moon will brief Trump on the meeting’s results Monday in New York, according to a person familiar with the plans.

Trump earlier praised Kim’s efforts, as well as a plan for both Koreas to jointly bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics, calling them “Very exciting!” in a late-night tweet. Just last month, Trump canceled Pompeo’s planned trip to Pyongyang because of a lack of progress.

Moon, who invited the North Korean leader to visit Seoul later this year, said “Chairman Kim has clearly shown a way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula today.”

Still, it’s unclear if North Korea will unveil nuclear production facilities other than Yongbyon, and disclose the location of its mobile launchers that can fire intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the American homeland.

Another challenge is that fact that North Korea continues to insist that any moves on its part be accompanied by concessions by the U.S. While Pompeo’s statement offered some wiggle room in that regard, the secretary himself has repeatedly said the U.S. won’t budge or offer anything to North Korea before it gives up its nuclear weapons entirely.

“Shuttering a missile launch facility or a nuclear facility is different from an overall comprehensive plan to account for, and then verify, roll back and eventually dismantle an entire nuclear weapons program,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

‘Nothing Has Changed’

North Korea has repeatedly slammed the U.S. for failing to uphold its end of the Singapore agreement, which many analysts criticized for failing to specify a timeframe for Kim to give up his nuclear weapons. As Moon arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency cited a commentary that accused Washington of making “gangster-like” demands and failing to build confidence with measures like a peace declaration.

Despite positive steps on Wednesday, both sides have a long way to achieve Trump’s goal for the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Experts also pointed out the irony of the agreement between North and South Korea being signed on the same date -- Sept. 19 -- as an agreement from the so-called Six-Party talks in 2005 in which Pyongyang “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” That commitment is far stronger than anything North Korea has agreed to now.

“It’s weaker than 13 years ago,” said Bruce Klingner, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and now a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We’re regressing in terms of the level of detail and commitment by the North.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.