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N Korea at crossroads

Trump sees China's hand in North Korea impasse

President still confident Kim will denuclearize after fruitless Pompeo visit

U.S. President Donald Trump suspects that China is using North Korea to gain leverage amid the trade war.   © Reuters

NEW YORK/SEOUL -- U.S. President Donald Trump signaled that Beijing may have played a role in North Korea toughening its stance after an apparently unsuccessful visit to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though Trump said he remains confident Kim Jong Un will denuclearize.

In a tweet on Monday, Trump wrote that China "may be exerting negative pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade-Hope Not!"

Nevertheless, in the same tweet, the president maintained that his historic summit with Kim will still pay off.

"I have confidence that Kim Jong Un will honor the contract we signed &, even more importantly, our handshake," Trump wrote. "We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea."

The tweet was the president's first reaction to North Korea's accusation, made immediately after Pompeo's trip, that the U.S. is making "unilateral and gangster-like" demands for denuclearization.

Though Pompeo characterized his talks in Pyongyang as "very productive," the secretary departed with no concrete progress to show for it and without so much as a handshake with Kim.

Negotiators from the North had sought to bring a formal end to the Korean War in time for the 65th anniversary of the armistice agreement on July 27, in exchange for their offer to shutter a missile engine plant and to return the remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the war. But the U.S. instead insisted on "the same cancerous" path of negotiation sought by past administrations, the North said in the release, calling the talks "deeply regrettable."

In Monday's tweet, Trump suggested that Beijing may be undermining the talks as part of China's bilateral trade dispute with Washington. The first shots of the trade war were fired last week after U.S. tariffs on $34 billion worth of Chinese goods went into effect.

"Either North Korea tricked the U.S. or there is a possibility that North Korea changed their attitude under the influence of China," according to an analysis released Monday by the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a conservative think tank.

"There's no doubt in my mind that it's the Chinese pulling North Koreans back," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told Fox News on Sunday.

"If I were President Trump, I would not let China use North Korea to back me off of the trade dispute," Graham said. "We've got more bullets than they do when it comes to trade."

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied Graham's assertion at a news conference on Monday, saying the notion that China is somehow responsible for the inconsistency in the U.S. and North Korean positions "does not make any sense."

"China's attitude on this issue is consistent and clear-cut," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters. "We will continue to play a positive role in and make constructive contributions to realizing the denuclearization of the peninsula and achieving the long-lasting peace and stability of the region."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a meeting in Pyongyang   © Reuters

Trump may also have to worry about a new player joining the mix -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.

South Korean media reported on Monday that Kim Jong Un's official government plane flew to and from Russia's Vladivostok, where the Eastern Economic Forum is to take place in September. Kim has been invited and may use the trip as an opportunity to meet with Putin. The flight is likely to serve as preparation for that trip, as was the case with a flight to Dalian, China, ahead of the Trump-Kim summit last month.

Pompeo has been under increasing domestic pressure to achieve results toward the dismantlement of the North's nuclear weapons program. Yet, all signs indicate the country is in no rush to denuclearize.

A spate of recent news articles assert that Pyongyang continues to ramp up its nuclear activities, citing intelligence reports that found uranium-enrichment activities and development of submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles have continued throughout the months of diplomatic negotiations. Concessions that Pyongyang has offered thus far -- such as the proposed return of remains and the televised destruction of a nuclear test site -- appear to be more spectacle than substantive and have allowed North Korea to slow the pace of negotiations.

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