WASHINGTON – Trump administration officials offered mixed messages Tuesday on North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization and struggled to explain the president’s abrupt decision Friday to cancel a planned trip to Pyongyang this week by his top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
At a national security conference Tuesday morning, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested the North Korean regime may be having second thoughts about its promise to give up its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, Haley said the U.S. was making progress in its diplomatic push to force North Korea to denuclearize.
“Look, are they wishing or maybe changing their mind on denuclearization? It’s possible,” Haley said. “This is going to be a tough process, but this is still going in the right direction.”
Tuesday afternoon, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also insisted “there is progress being made” on denuclearization, even as she reiterated President Donald Trump’s Friday twitter complaints the North Korean regime appeared to be dragging its feet.
Trump announced Friday via Twitter that he was nixing Pompeo’s plans to travel to North Korea “because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Trump’s decision came just one day after Pompeo announced his plans to go to North Korea and touted a newly appointed State Department negotiator, Stephen Biegun, to lead the talks.
That trip was aimed at pressing North Korean dictator Kim Jong un to take concrete steps toward denuclearization. After meeting with Trump in Singapore in June, Kim signed a vaguely worded agreement in which North Korea promised to work toward a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But the North Korean government has not taken any publicly visible steps toward fulfilling that pledge.
On Tuesday, Nauert read a statement from Pompeo suggesting he remained committed to the diplomatic push.
“Despite the decision to delay my trip to Pyongyang, America stands ready to engage when it is clear Chairman Kim stands ready to deliver on the commitments that he made at the Singapore,” the Secretary of State said. “The United States, like the rest of the world, is looking forward to North Korea’s compliance” with denuclearization.
Pressed to explain Trump’s decision to cancel Pompeo’s trip, Nauert refused to confirm a Washington Post report that the catalyst was a letter from a top Kim deputy. The Post story said Pompeo received a harshly worded missive Friday from Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee.
The Post, citing anonymous sources, did not disclose any language used in the letter but said it was “sufficiently belligerent” that Pompeo and Trump were persuaded to nix the North Korea trip.
“I cannot confirm a letter,” Nauert told reporters at a State Department briefing Tuesday. “The entire national security team discussed this … They made the judgment that now is not the right time to travel.”
Nauert said she was not sure if any State Department officials had reached to the North Koreans in the wake of Trump’s tweets on Friday. And she shrugged off questions about whether the denuclearization talks have failed, as some Trump allies and critics have suggested. She said there has been progress, just not “sufficient progress.”
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