South Korean news outlets reported Wednesday that North Korea’s foreign minister and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may hold an informal meeting on the sidelines of a conference in Thailand next month.
This might be a potential humiliation for Pyongyang after declaring it would cease negotiations with the United States if Pompeo kept his diplomatic post.
Communist dictator Kim Jong-un already accepted Pompeo’s presence at his impromptu summit last week with President Donald Trump in Panmunjom, the border village sitting in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
In April, North Korea’s diplomats demanded that Trump replace Pompeo with someone “more mature” if the White House wished to reignite denuclearization talks with the rogue states. Talks between the two countries dissolved in February after Trump walked out of an in-person meeting with Kim, claiming the North Korean team was demanding too many concessions in exchange for taking no material steps towards ending its illegal nuclear program.
With fences apparently mended in Panmunjom, South Korean outlets are reporting that Pompeo himself will take up the job of substantive negotiations with the North Koreans as early as next month.
Pompeo and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho are both scheduled to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum scheduled for early August, leading to speculation that they will greet each other and discuss bilateral ties there.
When the State Department first announced Pompeo’s scheduled attendance at the ASEAN summit, the agency did not mention North Korea as being on the agenda. Instead, Pompeo’s objective would allegedly be to build upon the friendly ties Washington has with regional states and challenge the Chinese Communist Party’s use of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure plan that ends with Chinese control of global transport, to bankrupt its neighbors.
As the Korea Herald notes, however, the ASEAN conference is the only summit of its kind where America and North Korea both send their top diplomats, making it a prime venue for discussion. Ri, like Pompeo, was present at the Panmunjom event. The United States is also scheduled to send its special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, to the conference; it is not clear what his role would be there if not to help with talks with Pyongyang.
“Pompeo and Ri attended the ARF meeting in August last year, just after the first US-North Korea summit in Singapore, but they did not hold official talks,” the Herald notes. “This was because Ri was not directly involved in the denuclearization talks with the US at the time, but the situation is different this year.”
The North Korean government has not confirmed that Ri will go, but he is expected to attend instead of Kim Yong-chol, who South Korean intelligence agents believe has been demoted for his role in organizing the February summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, that ended with Trump walking out.
The Herald cites “a diplomatic source” as confirming that Ri will attend the ASEAN summit as North Korea’s top representative, and that he and Pompeo could “hold high-level talks” there. Similarly, the South Korean news agency Yonhap cites its own diplomatic source stating, “one cannot rule out the possibility of the top U.S. and North Korean diplomats meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum considering the circumstances.”
In April, North Korea ruled out any negotiations with the United States should Pompeo remain its chief diplomat. The foreign ministry’s Department of American Affairs head, Kwon Jong Gun, issued a statement that month blaming Pompeo for talks collapsing in Vietnam and warned that relations would be “lousy” so long as Pompeo held a leadership role.
“Hanoi summit gives us a lesson that whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in, the talks go wrong without any results even from the point close to success,” Kwon said at the time. “I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled.”
As recently as last week, North Korean state media was attacking Pompeo for allegedly being hostile to Pyongyang, in that case attacking him for accidentally mentioning North Korea during remarks on Iran, an error he clarified within seconds, but North Korea chose to ignore the clarification.
“Our state is not a country that will surrender to the U.S. sanctions, nor are we a country which the U.S. could attack whenever it desires to do so. If anyone dares to trample over our sovereignty and the right to existence, we will not hesitate to pull a muscle-flexing trigger in order to defend ourselves,” a North Korean official railed.
Kim Jong-un made no public objections to Pompeo’s presence at his meeting with Trump this weekend. Pompeo participated in the short bilateral talks conducted there and told reporters that he had a positive impression of Kim’s attitude towards ties to the United States.
“I left there with the recognition, I think, that Chairman Kim really wants to get something done, something very significant, that we want to do so in a timely way,” Pompeo said on Sunday. “We think we do have a jumping-off point for these discussions, which have put us in a place where we can truly evaluate if there is a clear path forward.”