At an unprecedented summit in Singapore, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un displayed friendliness, but talks offered few specifics on denuclearization. WSJ Eun-Young Jeong reports from the city-state. Illustration: Sharon Shi
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the U.S. hopes to achieve “major disarmament” of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal during President Donald Trump’s first term in office and would resume joint military exercises with South Korea if the talks stall.
“We’re hopeful that we can achieve that in the 2½ years,” he told reporters.
Mr. Pompeo, who arrived in Seoul to confer with senior South Korean and Japanese officials, bristled at criticism that the summit declaration signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim was vague and had failed to secure an explicit commitment from Pyongyang to intrusive verification.
The promise by North Korea to work toward “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Pompeo said, was tantamount to a commitment by Pyongyang to accept that the elimination of its nuclear weapons and forces must be irreversible and verifiable, although those words aren’t in the joint statement.
“Let me assure you that ‘complete’ encompasses verifiable in the minds of everyone concerned,” he said. “One can’t completely denuclearize without validating, authenticating—you pick the word.”
Mr. Pompeo met Thursday morning with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who congratulated him on holding what he described as a historic summit and adopting “a very meaningful joint statement.”
Mr. Moon acknowledged there were different views on the outcome, but emphasized that he was interested in discussing how the two sides could “fully and expeditiously implement this great agreement.”
Mr. Pompeo, who planned to travel later Thursday to Beijing, noted that while there was still a great deal of work to do, he was confident “that we took a very good, significant step in Singapore.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump had said his summit in Singapore with North Korea’s leader brought an end to that nation’s nuclear threat, even as there was no firm agreement on a complete and verifiable denuclearization.
“Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, shortly after stepping off Air Force One from his flight from Singapore. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a bilateral meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
The tweet led critics to compare Mr. Trump’s claims to the “Mission Accomplished” banner once raised during the Iraq war under the George W. Bush administration, a claim that proved premature.
“North Korea still has all its nuclear missiles, and we only got a vague promise of future denuclearization from a regime that can’t be trusted,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) on Twitter. “North Korea is a real and present threat.”
The regime has enough fissile material to make between 16 and 60 nuclear weapons and has likely built 10 to 20, according to U.S. experts. Its army might have 70 missiles, the Congressional Research Service estimates. Much about the arsenal is uncertain; and even less is known about the North’s chemical and biological weapons, among them the deadly VX nerve agent.
At the summit in Singapore, Mr. Trump said the U.S. would halt large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea, long an irritant to Pyongyang, while the two leaders signed the communiqué pledging to work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea and Japan were caught by surprise by that decision; the Pentagon has asserted for years that the exercises are needed to maintain the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces to defend against a potential North Korean attack.
Following his meeting Thursday with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Mr. Pompeo joined his fellow foreign ministers in a news conference that was intended to present a tableau of unity.
Mr. Pompeo sought to defend Mr. Trump’s tweet that there is no longer a threat from North Korea, saying the president was referring to the opportunity the Singapore summit presented.
“What the president was speaking to there is the moment that we had in Singapore,” Mr. Pompeo said.
He said Mr. Trump had conducted a “blunt conversation” with Mr. Kim during the summit about the changes he would need to made “in order for North Korea to rejoin the community of nations.”
“When he talked about the reduction in threat that followed from that it was with eyes wide open,” Mr. Pompeo added, referring to Mr. Trump’s twitter comments.
Mr. Pompeo acknowledged it was possible that future talks on denuclearization with North Korea might not succeed and reaffirmed that the U.S. would not grant sanctions relief until there was complete denuclearization in North Korea.
“We believe that Chairman Kim understands the urgency of the timing,” Mr. Pompeo added.
On Wednesday, Mr. Pompeo emphasized that Mr. Trump had told Mr. Kim that the exercises would be resumed if North Korea didn’t engage seriously in the nuclear talks.
“At the point that it’s concluded they are not, the president’s commitment to not have those joint exercises take place will no longer be in effect,” Mr. Pompeo added.
Mr. Trump also has said sanctions against North Korea would remain in effect until “we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor.”
North Korea, for its part, said Mr. Trump had told Mr. Kim he intended to lift the sanctions, suggesting through its state media that Mr. Trump had explicitly acceded to two longstanding North Korean demands during bilateral talks at their summit meeting.
Mr. Pompeo rejected characterizations in North Korean media that Mr. Trump has accepted Pyongyang’s long-held position that the denuclearization process should be phased and potentially prolonged.
“One should heavily discount some things that are written in other places, including from some of your colleagues,” he said to a small group of journalists.
Mr. Pompeo said that the two sides hadn’t yet decided when talks with North Korea would continue or what form they would take, but he suggested it would happen soon.
The secretary said the requirement for the exercises to remain suspended is that “productive, good faith negotiations” continue.
Some former U.S. negotiators have said the summit declaration was overly vague and failed to secure ironclad commitments from North Korea.
“The only possible reaction to the summit is disappointment,” Robert Gallucci, who led U.S. talks with North Korea during the Clinton administration, wrote on the website 38 North. “The only real question was whether the American president would get more specificity, some clarity from the North Korean chairman of what he meant by denuclearization and when it might happen. We got none of that.”
Mr. Pompeo said that a “great deal of work” had been done in pre-summit talks, which negotiators could draw on in the weeks and months ahead, though he acknowledged some of the understandings had yet to be spelled out in writing.
“Not all of that work appeared in the final document,” he said, referring to the summit declaration. “Lots of other places where there were understandings reached, we couldn’t reduce them to writing, so that means there’s still some work to do.”
Joseph Yun, a U.S. special representative for North Korea policy during the Obama and Trump administrations who announced his retirement in February, said the summit represented the start of a diplomatic process, but said the lack of detail in the joint summit statement could make it more difficult for Mr. Pompeo and his team to extract concessions from North Korea going forward.
“It’s not at all clear what the next steps are,” Mr. Yun told The Wall Street Journal, commenting on the lack of detail in the joint declaration. Mr. Trump “gave in on what denuclearization is and how long it will take, he kicked that can down the road.”
He added: “How difficult is it going to get? You can almost see they’re starting from scratch.”
Christopher Hill, who headed the U.S. delegation to six-party talks over North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, had said the document didn’t really change anything, in part because it didn’t say anything about North Korea’s neighbors.