SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit North Korea on Friday, seeking to secure the remains of some 200 U.S. troops missing from the Korean War and initial agreement on the North’s nuclear facilities to be declared.
Pompeo is expected to land in Pyongyang at around noon (0300 GMT) after a brief stopover in Japan, according to a pool report by reporters traveling with him.
The secretary will spend a day and a half in North Korea until Saturday on his third trip to Pyongyang. It will begin with lunch with Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official who played a central role together with Pompeo in arranging last month’s unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
At the summit, Kim made a broad commitment to “work toward denuclearisation,” but fell short of details on how or when he would dismantle the nuclear programs.
“The President told me he believes that Chairman Kim sees a different, brighter future for the people of North Korea. We both hope that’s true,” Pompeo said on Twitter after a phone call with Trump in the air.
He is seeking to “fill in” some details on those commitments and maintain the momentum toward implementation of the agreement from the summit, Pompeo said, according to the pool report.
Pompeo would try to agree on at least an initial list of nuclear sites and inventory that can be checked against the available intelligence, U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters.
Also high on the agenda is a return of the remains of 200 U.S. soldiers missing from the 1950-53 conflict, which Trump said had been sent back, though there was no official confirmation from military authorities.
Both are considered essential tests of whether Kim is serious about negotiations, which so far North Korean officials have yet to demonstrate in working-level talks, the intelligence officials said.
“If they’re serious, then we can get down to the business of defining the terms of final denuclearization,” said one official.
But the U.S. ability to verify the accuracy of any list from Pyongyang is limited due to the lack of a “high confidence” accounting of the North’s nuclear arsenal, such as the number of warheads and uranium enrichment facilities, especially if they are not operational, they said.
Identifying any and all U.S. troops who might be returned from North Korea may also be challenging.
“Until we do the necessary DNA testing to verify whose remains they are, and things like whether they’ve put remains of the same soldier into more than one box or tried to fool us with pieces of animal bones, we won’t know for sure what they’ve given us back,” said a U.S. military official familiar with the procedures for handling soldiers’ remains.
However, some officials in the State and Defence Departments and in U.S. intelligence agencies are worried that by overstating the results of the Singapore summit, Trump has put himself at a disadvantage if negotiations do begin.
Ahead of the Singapore summit, Pompeo said Trump would reject anything short of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”
But following talks on Sunday between U.S. envoy Sung Kim and North Korean counterparts, this “CVID” language appears to have disappeared from the State Department lexicon.
It says pressure will remain until North Korea denuclearizes, but in statements this week, has redefined the U.S. goal as “the final, fully verified denuclearisation” of the country.
Some U.S. officials and experts have said the change in language amounted to a softening in the U.S. approach.
The State Department denied the view, saying its policy remains unchanged.
After his departure from Washington on Thursday, Pompeo tweeted: “Looking forward to continuing our work toward the final, fully verified denuclearization of #DPRK, as agreed to by Chairman Kim. Good to have press along for the trip.”
“The president has made it hard to walk away from the talks even in the North is just stalling and prevaricating again,” said another official familiar with the talks, pointing to Trump’s tweets that North Korea no longer poses nuclear threats.
“Kim may be betting – maybe gambling – that just as he agreed to meet after threatening fire and fury, the president may back down again and let Pyongyang set the agenda and the timetable,” the official said.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and John Walcott in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in WASHINGTON; Editing by Darren Schuettler