US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to North East Asia from 6-8 October where he visited Japan, North Korea, South Korea and China.
Pompeo’s Asian tour came amidst rising tensions with China and growing scepticism on the part of some American North Korea watchers that the US and North Korea could successfully fulfil the Sentosa commitments that had been reached in the summit that brought President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un face-to-face 12 June in Singapore.
This was Pompeo’s fourth visit to Pyongyang this year, the first in his former capacity as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Both the Americans and the North Koreans have been working on a second summit between the US president and the leader of North Korea.
One major topic in the talks of Pompeo in Pyongyang was to prepare for this summit and to agree on the substantive questions that would be discussed.
No date has been advanced so far for the summit, nor an agreement on its venue. It could take place early next year. The American side wants to make sure that the expected summit would be a milestone on the denuclearisation of North Korea with guarantees as to the end results in the context of a timetable.
Lately, the US administration has talked about 2021 as the target date for the denuclearisation of North Korea, even though some American officials have said that Washington does not treat this date as an absolute must.
In September, South Korean President Moon Jae-in paid an official visit to Pyongyang, his first since taking office last year, in a process of assured and gradual normalisation of relations between the two Koreas.
This trend facilitates the growing rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang that would be sealed by a second US-North Korea summit. In fact, the Asian tour of Pompeo could be seen as part of American preparations to agree with American allies, Japan and South Korea, on the conditions for the success of the prospective second summit.
From a Japanese point of view, for instance, the fear is that the greatest concern of the US is the denuclearisation of the North and not North Korea’s intercontinental missile programme that poses a serious threat to Japanese territories.
After his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo 6 October, Pompeo assured the Japanese that he would work to have a “full coordinated view of how to proceed, which will be what is needed if we are going to be successful in denuclearising North Korea”.
During his first visit to Pyongyang, President Moon Jae-in saw eye to eye with Chairman Kim Jong-un on the desirability of agreeing to end the Armistice of 1953 in the Korean War.
However, the Americans have been non-committal, so far, on this very important point. The official ending of the war should be dealt with early on in the process of denuclearisation, not only of North Korea, but the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
If the United States is eagerly looking and striving for the denuclearisation of the North, then it should give something very tangible, not only for the North Koreans, but also to the Chinese side, like withdrawing US nuclear arms from South Korea in the long process of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula.
To expect the North Koreans to agree to complete denuclearisation on their part without iron-clad guarantees that American nuclear arms would also be withdrawn is too optimistic a scenario on the part of American negotiators.
Pompeo said on the way to Japan that the United States and North Korea are having “moving conversations” about how to achieve denuclearisation, and to add that the mission is to make sure that each side understands what the other side is “truly trying to achieve”.
If this is the case, then it would not be far-fetched to expect some kind of progress in American-North Korean negotiations concerning denuclearisation, once they resume. It is interesting to note, in this context, what South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung said.
In an interview with The Washington Post this week, she said the North could agree to dismantle Yongbyon, its major nuclear site, in exchange for the United States declaring the end of the Korean War (1950-1953).
If this is the case, then we could argue that peace on the Korean Peninsula has ceased to be next to impossible, and it would be a great achievement for President Trump, Chairman Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The only question is when would the Americans and the North Koreans announce such a historic accord? Maybe sooner than we could imagine.
Probably, the most difficult part in the Asian tour of Pompeo would be in Beijing. Two days before his departure to begin this tour, US Vice President Mike Pence launched an unexpected attack on China, an attack that took many by surprise due to its vehemence and the tense relations between China and the United States of late.
He accused the Chinese of meddling with the aim of hurting Trump and the Republicans in midterm elections in November.
No doubt, these remarks won’t make Pompeo’s visit to Beijing an easy one, although he said afterwards that, aside from trade differences between the United States and China, the Chinese government is determined to support American efforts to see the process of denuclearisation of North Korea through to its completion.
From a strategic point of view, the Chinese are open to the denuclearisation of the North, but the question is under what conditions? The North Korean deputy foreign minister had visited both Moscow and Beijing prior to the tour of the US secretary of state, and before his talks in the North Korean capital.
With such coordination among the North Koreans, the Chinese and the Russians, the United States should be prepared to be more forthcoming on the conditions and the sequencing of the denuclearisation process, and should approach it regionally and internationally, and not limit it to its bilateral relations with North Korea.
Peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is a matter of utmost importance for the six powers that have been playing politics in this part of the world since the Armistice of 1953; namely, the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.
The American-North Korean conversations and negotiations are taking place in against a wide regional and international context.
Ultimately, their success, or absence thereof, would depend, to a large extent, on the administration of President Trump taking this into account.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: High stakes re-engagement