U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting North Korea early next week. It is his fourth visit to the Stalinist country after the third in early July, when he allegedly returned from Pyongyang empty-handed. Pompeo will be accompanied by Stephen Biegun, the newly appointed U.S. special envoy to North Korea. While attention is focusing on whether their visit will provide a breakthrough in stalled denuclearization talks, U.S. President Donald Trump commented on the introduction of additional sanctions.
Watchers say Pompeo’s announcement on his visit to the North could mean that Pyongyang and Washington might have narrowed differences to some extent in exchanging the North’s submission of nuclear weapons list and declaration of the end of the Korean War through behind-the-scene negotiations. Washington’s hiring a high-profile veteran security and diplomacy expert as the chief of its North Korea policy, a position that remained vacant for over six months, could imply that the two sides are now ready to kick-start denuclearization process in earnest. The U.S. State Department revealed expectations for regular contacts with the North, as the new special representative to North Korea has joined the negotiation team.
Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang is directly linked to the second round of inter-Korean summit talks on the Korean Peninsula in September. If North Korea and the United States enter into agreement to start denuclearization process, it will not only have highly positive immediate impact on Pyongyang visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in but also significantly elevate the possibility for a second Pyongyang-Washington summit. It is also clear that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who wants to take the center stage in summit diplomacy, will feel the need to strike a deal in the upcoming negotiations.
But since still North Korea is strongly demanding easing of sanctions along with declaration of the end of the Korean War, it remains uncertain if Pyongyang and Washington will be able to strike a big deal. If Pyongyang gets overly ambitious by judging the current situation an opportunity to secure more concessions from President Trump ahead of the U.S. mid-term elections in November, negotiations will inevitably falter. If Pompeo returns to Washington empty-handed again, hard-line stance against Pyongyang will emerge, which will trigger stronger sanctions against the North, while the framework of Pyongyang-Washington dialogue itself could also collapse.
Amid this situation, Washington is watching warily Seoul’s expressed plan to open an inter-Korean liaison office without applying for exemption of U.N. sanctions against the North. Even so, some lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Party irresponsibly comment on the issue, by saying, “(For Seoul) to take s bold move could be a viable option.” A loophole in Seoul-Washington collaboration will only help increase North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s misguided expectations. Seoul should remember that inter-Korean relations and Pyongyang-Washington relations cannot proceed separately, which is President Moon’s credo and a driving force of North Korean denuclearization talks.