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Trump canceled Pompeo’s trip over letter from Pyongyang

Aug 29,2018
U.S. President Donald Trump called off Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to North Korea due to a belligerent letter from a senior North Korean senior official, according to a news report Monday.

Pompeo received a secret letter from Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and director of the United Front Department, which handles inter-Korean relations, Friday morning, according to a Washington Post column Monday.

Pompeo showed the letter to Trump, confirmed two senior administration officials, prompting the president to cancel Pompeo’s Pyongyang trip, reportedly just hours before his departure.

Last Thursday, Pompeo announced that he would be making a fourth trip to Pyongyang soon, accompanied by the new U.S. State Department special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, vice president of international governmental affairs for Ford Motor Company. Biegun, a former White House staffer, is set to step down from Ford at the end of this month to take over as the U.S. point man on North Korea.

Trump abruptly called off the pair’s trip to Pyongyang through a tweet Friday, claiming they were “not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” He also said that Pompeo looks forward to going to the North “in the near future,” likely after the “trading relationship with China is resolved.”

The content of the letter from Kim Yong-chol was not revealed, according to the Washington Post column by Josh Rogin, but it was considered belligerent enough for the president to promptly call off the Pyongyang visit, as the letter convinced both Pompeo and Trump that the trip would not be successful.

Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang was expected to be a move toward a step-for-step nuclear deal with North Korea, and there were expectations that his visit would take the stalled process forward.

North Korea has pushed for a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, while the Trump administration has urged Pyongyang to declare its nuclear stockpile and facilities, and analysts have been waiting for some sort of breakthrough in the deadlock.

The delaying of Pompeo’s trip could be an indication Trump may be leaning toward the stance of hard-liners in his administration like National Security Adviser John Bolton, who advocates stronger pressure on North Korea.

According to the Washington Post column, Bolton and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are opposed to Trump issuing a declaration of the end of war, a largely political gesture, at this time, citing several officials.

This comes amid a growing drift in messaging between the U.S. State Department and South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs over the North’s denuclearization.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Pompeo held a phone conversation Saturday after the announcement of the postponement of the Pyongyang trip.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said through a statement Monday that Kang and Pompeo reaffirmed that the two countries “remain committed to the final, fully verified denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” referring to the North’s official name, as committed to by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during the Singapore summit.

Since the beginning of last month, the Trump administration has been employing the term “final, fully verified denuclearization,” or FFVD, rather than the more commonly used “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” or CVID.

Kim and Trump in their June 12 joint agreement committed to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in turn for “security guarantees” for the North.

Nauert continued that Seoul and Washington pledged to “maintain close coordination” and agreed that the “pressure must continue” until North Korea denuclearizes.

In a statement Saturday, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said, “We think it is regrettable that the trip to North Korea was delayed at this time.”

The ministry added that advancing South Korea and the United States’ joint goal of “substantial progress toward the complete denuclearization and establishment of a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is more important than anything else.”

This was a slight deviation from the State Department’s statement, which left out the concept of a “permanent peace regime,” while in turn, the South Korean statement made no mention of “pressure.”

The South’s Foreign Ministry statement also noted that China has declared it will faithfully implement UN Security Council sanctions resolutions, adding, “We look forward to China to continue having a constructive role in the North Korea nuclear issue.”

When asked about Kim Yong-chol’s secret letter to Pompeo, Noh Kyu-duk, spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said in a press briefing Tuesday, “We are aware that the North and United States have continued negotiations on the implementation of the North-U.S. joint statement. However, I don’t think it is appropriate for our government to comment or confirm the details of contact between the North and the United States.”

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official, however, indirectly confirmed Tuesday that Pompeo explained to Seoul about the secret letter from Kim Yong-chol in his phone conversation with Kang.

“As the ministry said in its statement, Secretary of State Pompeo explained in detail the background behind the postponement of his visit to North Korea, so we’ll leave it at that,” said this official.

In a separate statement Saturday, the ministry recounted the phone conversation between Kang and Pompeo, which took place that morning, discussing the “postponement” of the secretary’s trip to the North and “possible next steps.”

Pompeo, according to the ministry here, “explained in detail the background behind the postponement of his visit to North Korea.”

Kang in turn “expressed regret” over the postponement of Pompeo’s Pyongyang trip “on which the international community held high expectations.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in plans to continue with his trip to Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-un next month, following talks at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in April and May, regardless of the apparent rift between the United States and the North.

There is “no faltering” in the plans for the inter-Korean summit in September, said Kim Eui-kyeom, the Blue House spokesman, adding, “The need for a South-North Korean summit has rather become greater because of the standoff between the United States and North Korea.”

He continued in a briefing Tuesday, “We expect the inter-Korean summit to play a role in making a breakthrough and further expand the path.”

Spokesman Kim on Sunday, however, admitted that the cancellation of Pompeo’s trip to the North may have “some effect” on the opening of an inter-Korean liaison office that had been in the works, another controversial issue.

Should Pompeo have visited the North this week, it was expected the office could have been opened this month without much ado.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]