North Korea’s Response to Pompeo’s Visit Not as Negative as Portrayed?

By Patrick Goodenough | July 10, 2018 | 5:08 AM EDT

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo consults with his team during a break in the talks in Pyongyang on July 6-7, 2018. (Photo: @SecPompeo/Twitter)

( – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, commenting Monday on the North Koreans’ response to his recent meetings there – largely characterized in media reporting as extremely negative – suggested that a fairer assessment of the regime’s reaction would be “mixed.”

Some Korea experts are arguing, too, that a statement issued by Pyongyang’s foreign ministry shortly after Pompeo’s departure wasn’t as grim as portrayed.

Much of the coverage focused on the statement’s accusation that the U.S. side had made a “gangster-like demand for denuclearization” and its description of the day-and-a-half of talks as “extremely worrisome.”

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Afghanistan, Pompeo acknowledged that there was still “a long ways to go” in negotiations on denuclearizing North Korea, but said that Kim Jong Un’s personal commitment to President Trump at their summit last month “has been reinforced.”

“I saw some of the statements came out [after the visit], they were – they were mixed,” he said.

“You haven’t reported on that, the mixed statements, but maybe, maybe you will now – that the statements that were put out, Chairman Kim’s statement following our discussions, continue to express his desire to complete the denuclearization to which he is so committed.”

Pompeo did not meet with Kim Jong Un himself, but held talks with a delegation led by the dictator’s right-hand-man Kim Yong Chol, a hardline general sanctioned by the U.S. and South Korea.

Among other things, the statement fretted that the U.S. side had not agreed to something the regime seems to be prioritizing – a public declaration by the U.S., on the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement, that the war is over.

Since the conflict ended in 1953 with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the sides remain technically at war. The 65th anniversary of the document’s signing is less than three weeks away, on July 27.

The statement said the North Koreans proposed such a declaration by the U.S. as one of several “simultaneous actions” to be taken by both sides to create trust. Other such confidence-building measures would include its dismantling of a missile engine test facility, and cooperation on recovering American MIA remains.

“The U.S. side never mentioned the issue of establishing a peace regime on the Korean peninsula which is essential for defusing tension and preventing a war,” it complained.

The statement did not attack Trump personally. On the contrary, it said towards the end, “We still cherish our good faith in President Trump.”

The statement also said Pompeo had been handed a letter from Kim Jong Un, in which he “expressed his expectation and conviction that good personal relations forged with President Trump and his sentiments of good faith built towards the latter at the Singapore summit and talks would be further consolidated through the process of future dialogues.”


Some Korea experts say the foreign ministry statement was not as negative as depicted.

“Most of the media outlets have focused on the ‘gangster’ comment, although it wasn’t really ‘gangster’; it was ‘brigandish,’ which is a favorite North Korean term,” Stimson Center senior fellow Joel Wit, a former nuclear negotiator with North Korea, said during a conference call with reporters Monday.

He noted the statement contained no criticism of Trump but that “there was continued cultivation of the good relationship that came out of Singapore.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his delegation in their talks with the North Koreans in Pyongyang last week. (Photo: @SecPompeo/Twitter)

The statement also contained substantive elements, Wit pointed out.

“So overall, the focus on this ‘gangster’ comment, ignoring 90 percent of the rest of the statement, I think really did a disservice to what it actually said.”

Also taking part in the conference call, which was organized by the Stimson Center’s 38 North project, was Ambassador Robert Gallucci of Georgetown University, who was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea in the 1990s.

To his ear, Gallucci said, the statement was “in a way, much more gentle and careful than I have heard from the North Koreans on any number of occasions over more than two decades.”

He said the statement reflected the North Koreans’ “disappointment” that Pompeo had likely focused on denuclearization rather than on what the U.S. was prepared to do for North Korea.

“But it is not an overly polemic, awful, statement, of the kind we’re really quite used to getting out of Pyongyang,” Gallucci said. “So, it doesn’t bother me, as a statement, at this point, or get in the way of proceeding with future engagement.”

A similar view came from Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and a former North Korea intelligence official.

In an article posted on the 38 North website, he noted the regime statement’s use of the balanced formulation “both sides” – which, he wrote, “the North Koreans typically use when they want to be seen as flexible and accommodating.”

“A shorter way to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula is to remove deep-rooted mistrust and build up trust between the DPRK and the U.S.,” the statement said.

“For this, both sides should be bold enough to be free from old ways which had only recorded failures and resolve the problem in a fresh manner which is never bound by the existing ways.”

See also:
North Korean foreign ministry statement in full (English-language text)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow