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N Korea at crossroads

Pressure on North Korea eases as US flip-flops

With post-summit lull dragging on, Pompeo refuses to set disarmament timeline

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, met in Pyongyang this year.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, met in Pyongyang over the Easter weekend.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- White House officials appear out of step in their approach to North Korea, making conflicting statements on whether the U.S. has a firm timeline in mind for denuclearization with no prospect of further talks in sight.

Two weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held a historic summit in Singapore, the pressure for swift disarmament on the Korean Peninsula appears to be dissipating.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN this week that he was "not going to put a timeline" on negotiations with North Korea, "whether that's two months, six months." He also suggested that it was too soon to have a detailed timetable on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal, the American news channel reported.

Department of Defense spokeswoman Dana White echoed the secretary of state on Monday, tweeting that "there is no specific timeline" to the process of North Korean diplomacy.

But Pompeo's open-ended statements appeared to contradict a senior defense official who told select reporters on Sunday that the U.S. would approach the North with "specific asks."

Pompeo's remarks to CNN also contrasted with his own suggestion the day after the Singapore summit that the White House aimed to see "major disarmament" from the North by the end of Trump's current term, which will come in January 2021.

The joint statement issued after the summit included a pledge by Pyongyang to work toward the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." But the details and the schedule were left for high-level meetings to follow.

Trump told a post-summit news conference that "we're getting together next week to go into the details," apparently referring to his White House team. Pompeo said June 18 that he would likely return to the North "before too terribly long." No plans have been confirmed yet.

Even before the summit, Trump told reporters that "I don't even want to use the term 'maximum pressure' anymore ... because we're getting along," appearing to distance the U.S. from the policy it had so frequently advocated with ally Japan.

The mixed messages from White House officials could present the North with an opening that undermines Washington's ability to press for "complete, verifiable and irreversible" nuclear disarmament.  North Korea's past behavior suggests that it is seeking concessions while buying time through a piecemeal disarmament process.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for his first visit to China since taking office, is expected to seek cooperation on disarming the North with Chinese officials including counterpart Wei Fenghe before leaving on Thursday for South Korea and Japan.

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