TOKYO — The State Department on Wednesday announced a planned meeting with a top North Korean envoy had been scrubbed, even as President Trump said he hoped to hold a second summit with Kim Jong Un “early next year.”
Trump’s remarks followed a surprise notice by the State Department that a scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his counterpart in New York had been called off at the last minute, suggesting a growing rift between Washington and Pyongyang over the denuclearization process and the right time to lift sanctions.
Trump told reporters at the White House that Pompeo’s meeting “is going to be rescheduled,” but gave no further specifics on why the talks were called off.
Last week, North Korea repeated its demand that Washington lift sanctions as part of a step-by-step approach toward dismantling the North’s nuclear program. But Trump said sanctions relief first required concessions on the part of Pyongyang.
“I’d love to take the sanctions off but they have to be responsive, too, it’s a two-way street,” Trump said.
Pompeo’s meeting was scheduled for Thursday. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it would now take place “at a later date.”
“We will reconvene when our schedules permit,” she added in a statement. “Ongoing conversations continue to take place. The United States remains focused on fulfilling the commitments agreed to by President Trump and Chairman Kim [Jong Un] at the Singapore summit in June.”
South Korean national broadcaster KBS reported that the North Korean negotiating team, led by Kim Yong Chol, was supposed to fly Wednesday from Beijing to New York.
But KBS said it was unclear whether the team had even arrived in Beijing. It added that Kim Yong Chol apparently had canceled his New York flight early Tuesday.
One person familiar with the situation said Kim Yong Chol may have wanted to parlay his meeting with Pompeo into a visit with Trump, but canceled the visit after being told Trump would be flying to Paris on Friday and unavailable for a meeting.
The postponement comes at a tricky time in the nuclear negotiations.
North Korea wants both sides to take “simultaneous and phased” steps, with its concessions matched by similar steps from Washington, to reassure the North Korean leader he can safely scale back or dismantle his nuclear weapons program.
The United States takes a fundamentally different approach, demanding North Korea fully denuclearize before sanctions are lifted.
In the past few weeks, the two sides appear to have grown further apart. North Korea has increased its demands: It had been asking the United States to formally declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, but now it is arguing it needs sanctions relief before it takes any further steps.
On Friday, a commentary published by the head of a North Korean Foreign Ministry think tank warned Pyongyang might even restart its nuclear weapons program if sanctions are not lifted.
“We are at a crossroads. Someone needs to blink. If no one does, we could be back to fire and fury days all over again,” said Harry Kazianis, an Asia expert at the Center for the National Interest.
At the same time, South Korean government advisers and experts say Pyongyang is not prepared to hand over a list of its nuclear and missile facilities, believing such a document would effectively give the U.S. military a list of potential targets.
If these disputes are behind the postponement of the meeting, it would not be the first time the negotiations have run into trouble.
In May, Trump announced a planned summit with Kim Jong Un had been canceled, citing hostile statements from Pyongyang.
But soon afterward, as a result of mediation by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim Yong Chol flew to the United States to meet Pompeo and deliver a letter to Trump that paved the way for the June summit.
In August, a planned trip by Pompeo to Pyongyang was canceled when negotiations hit an impasse. The secretary of state eventually made the trip last month.
Kim Eui-keum, a spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House, advised against reading too much into the latest setback.
“This has happened in the past, so we don’t need to overemphasize this,” he told reporters. “I also don’t think this means U.S.-North Korea talks, both at the high level and summit level, have lost their momentum.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also told reporters not to “overthink” the postponement or “fixate on every turn.” But it acknowledged disappointment and said it hopes the talks will be rescheduled soon.
“Our government had hoped for a real advancement in denuclearization and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula through the North Korea-U. S. high-level talks, but it hasn’t been realized, which we find disappointing,” an official told local reporters in a background briefing.
Despite Seoul’s largely upbeat tone, the rift does seem significant and has even strained relations between Washington and Seoul, with South Korea backing North Korea’s call for sanctions relief.
Many experts doubt Pyongyang’s willingness to surrender its nuclear weapons and think it has been stringing Trump along to gain whatever concessions it can. But some argue the U.S. foreign policy establishment is locked into a too-rigid mind-set.
Joel Wit, a former State Department official with extensive experience in negotiating with the North Koreans, said Washington is sticking to the “old playbook,” one that has failed repeatedly, particularly in its insistence that North Korea first take steps such as denuclearization before the United States does anything.
Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, has become much more pessimistic in recent weeks. “I think the U.S. is going to miss this opportunity, essentially because there is no one below Trump who is capable of thinking out of the box,” he wrote in an email earlier this week.
Hudson reported from Washington. Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.