NORTH KOREA — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began his first trip to Pyongyang since President Donald Trump’s summit with leader Kim Jong Un last month with a vow to nail down the specifics of Kim’s commitments on denuclearization.
Pompeo, who arrived in the North Korean capital on Friday, has the crucial task of dispelling growing skepticism over how seriously Kim is about giving up his nuclear arsenal and translating the upbeat rhetoric following the summit into concrete action.
He was met at the Pyongyang airport by Kim Yong Chol, a senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief, and Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.
Soon afterward, he and Kim Yong Chol, who has been something of a point-man on Washington negotiations for Kim Jong Un, sat down for their first talks.
“The more you come, more trust we can build between one another,” Kim told Pompeo, according to a pool from reporters traveling with the secretary.
It was not clear if Pompeo would meet directly with Kim Jong Un, as he had done previously.
On the flight to Pyongyang, Pompeo said both sides made commitments at the Singapore summit on the complete denuclearization of North Korea and on what a transformed bilateral relationship might look like.
“On this trip, I’m seeking to fill in some details on these commitments and continue the momentum toward implementation of what the two leaders promised each other and the world. I expect that the DPRK is ready to do the same,” Pompeo said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name.
One hoped-for breakthrough would be the return of the remains of U.S. troops killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. Both sides have suggested Pyongyang is willing to turn over dozens if not hundreds of sets of remains.
But just before Pompeo’s arrival, the North’s state-run media lobbed a warning shot at Washington over its criticism of the North’s human rights record.
The criticism, published on North Korea’s government-run Uriminzokkiri website, said Washington should stop provoking the North with an “anachronistic human rights racket” at a time of diplomatic attempts to improve ties.
What position it will take on the nuclear issue appears to be anything but a done deal.
Doubts over the North’s intentions have grown amid reports it is continuing to expand facilities related to its nuclear and missile programs and that U.S. intelligence is skeptical about its intentions to give up its weapons.
Speaking aboard Air Force One on a trip to Montana, Trump said he still believes Kim will follow through and said he forged a personal connection with the young autocrat he once pilloried as “Little Rocket Man.”
“I think we understand each other. I really believe that he sees a different future for North Korea,” Trump told reporters. “I hope that’s true. If it’s not true, then we go back to the other way, but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.”
Trump needs Pompeo to score some points to lay to rest doubts over whether the president, who has already ordered a suspension of large-scale U.S. military drills with South Korea, is hurting the bigger goal of complete denuclearization by being overeager to claim a quick success.
What exactly Washington has in mind, however, isn’t entirely clear.
National security adviser John Bolton, who has expressed hardline views on North Korea, said Sunday that Pompeo will present Pyongyang with a plan to complete the dismantling of the North’s nuclear and missile programs in one year.
On Tuesday, Nauert walked that back, declining to give a timeline.
Pompeo last visited in May ahead of the Trump-Kim summit and traveled to Pyongyang secretly in early April while he was director of the CIA.
Pyongyang is the first stop on his first around-the-world trip as America’s top diplomat. He will then travel to Japan, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates before heading to Belgium, where he will accompany Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels.