BANGKOK (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he’s very hopeful for a quick resumption in nuclear talks with North Korea despite the North’s recent weapons tests that have clouded already uncertain prospects for a return to the table.
Pompeo told reporters accompanying him to an Asian security conference in Thailand that some preliminary work on a new round of talks has been done but no dates have been set. He said he’s waiting to see if North Korea’s foreign minister comes to Bangkok for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum and is confident they will meet if he does. The State Department says the lead U.S. negotiator, Stephen Biegun, will be in Bangkok for North Korea-related discussions but has not released his schedule.
“We think they’ll be started before too long,” Pompeo said. “I’m very hopeful.”
Talks have been stalled since President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit in February in Hanoi that broke up over disagreements about sanctions relief and what actions the North would have to take in exchange. But they agreed to restart the talks when they met at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas in June. At the time, U.S. officials spoke of the negotiations resuming in a matter of a few weeks.
“It’s taken a little bit longer than that,” Pompeo said. “There’s been a little bit of preliminary work to be done. I never want to set a date (but) I hope before too long we will have Special Representative Biegun sitting with what I think will be a new counterpart from North Korea.”
Since the latest Trump-Kim meeting, however, and just in the past week, the North has conducted two short-range ballistic missile tests. And, the two sides remain at odds on a definition of denuclearization. The U.S. says sanctions cannot be removed until the process is complete, although it has said some concessions are possible in return for partial steps.
The annual ASEAN security meeting has been used in the past as a venue for U.S.-North Korea talks and although the North has signaled that its top diplomat may not attend this year, Pompeo was nonplussed.
“We don’t anticipate that the North Koreans will be at the event in Bangkok, but if they are, I’d look forward to the chance to meet with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho,” he said, saying such a meeting “would be great.” ”We’ll see if they are there, and if they are there, I am confident we’ll meet.”
Even if such a meeting does not occur, Pompeo will have a full plate of thorny issues to contend with in Bangkok.
Among them, rising tensions with China over its increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea, hostility toward pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mass detentions of Muslims and other minorities in the western region of Xinjiang. Pompeo will meet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday as talks on ending a bitter U.S.-China trade dispute wrap up in Shanghai.
Pompeo will also be seeking in Bangkok to ease brewing tensions over trade between U.S. allies Japan and South Korea that threaten to disrupt Seoul’s electronics industry and draws on long-standing bitterness over Japan’s actions toward Korea during World War II. The dispute also threatens to poison relations at a time when Washington would prefer to see a united front in dealing with North Korea.
.On Friday, Pompeo will meet the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers separately before convening a three-way meeting among them.
“We will encourage them to find a path forward. We think it’s important,” Pompeo said aboard his plane. “They’re both great partners of ours; they’re both working closely with us on our efforts to denuclearize North Korea. So, if we can help them find a good place for each of their two countries, we certainly find that important to the United States, indeed, as well as to each of those two countries. I hope we’ll have a good conversation and we can help get to a good place.”