WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday abruptly canceled his top diplomat’s planned trip to North Korea, publicly acknowledging for the first time that his effort to get Pyongyang to denuclearize had stalled since his summit with North Korea’s leader.
Trump partly blamed China for his insufficient progress with North Korea and suggested that talks with Pyongyang, led so far by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, could be on hold until after Washington resolved its bitter trade dispute with Beijing.
It was a dramatic shift of tone for Trump, who had previously hailed his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a success and said the North Korean nuclear threat was over, despite no real sign Pyongyang was willing to give up its nuclear weapons.
“I have asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump wrote in a series of messages on Twitter.
Negotiations have all but deadlocked since the June summit in Singapore. Pompeo has pressed for tangible steps toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal while Pyongyang is demanding that Washington first make concessions of its own.
Trump’s statement came just a day after Pompeo said he would again visit North Korea and would take his new U.S. special representative, Stephen Biegun, with him in an attempt to break the stalemate.
But Trump asked Pompeo not to go to North Korea during a Friday afternoon meeting at the White House, a senior White House official said.
Many key officials learned of Trump’s decision by seeing the crawl across a television screen, some of them during a meeting to discuss U.S.-North Korea negotiations, two officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Some U.S. intelligence and defense officials had considered Pompeo’s latest trip to be premature and said the prospects for significant progress appeared dim.
Pompeo, who would have been making his second visit to Pyongyang since the summit, had not been expected to meet Kim this time, the State Department said on Thursday.
Trump put some of the onus on China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and a linchpin in the diplomatic effort, for his decision to scrap Pompeo’s trip.
“Because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were (despite the UN Sanctions which are in place),” Trump tweeted.
“Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved,” Trump wrote. “In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Trump defended his approach, saying he believed North Korea had taken specific steps toward denuclearization. He said he and Kim had “great chemistry” and would “most likely” meet again.
Kelly Magsamen a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian affairs now at the Center for American Progress think tank, said Trump was undermining his leverage with Kim as well as that of Pompeo and his new envoy.
“It’s fine to not send the Secretary due to lack of progress, but don’t then also talk about how you are eager to meet with KJU and how China is thwarting you,” she tweeted.
Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who led past failed negotiations with North Korea, tweeted: “Looks like @realDonaldTrump has begun to worry about #NorthKorea intentions. Good decision especially if otherwise Pompeo would have returned empty handed.”
Kim made a broad, vague commitment in Singapore to work toward denuclearization of the Korean peninsula but has given no sign of a willingness to give up his nuclear arsenal unilaterally.
But intermittent talks since have made little headway, with the two sides apparently far apart on the fundamental issue of denuclearization and the U.S. demand for this before North Korea sees any relief from tough international sanctions.
On his last visit to Pyongyang, in July, Pompeo left saying progress had been made, only for North Korea within hours to denounce his “gangster-like demands.” He did not meet with Kim on that trip, although he did on his first two visits, which took place before the summit.
U.S. officials have been trying to persuade North Korea to detail the extent of its nuclear arsenal and the locations of its weapons, something Pyongyang had always refused to do in past failed rounds of talks.
Some analysts suggested Trump’s cancellation of the Pompeo trip may also be a negotiating ploy. In May, Trump announced he was calling off his planned summit with Kim, citing Pyongyang’s “open hostility,” only to reverse himself eight days later.
Trump’s cancellation of Pompeo’s trip follows two days of mid-level U.S.-China trade talks in Washington that ended with no sign of progress toward resolving a deepening trade war between the world’s two largest economies and no plans for more talks in the near term.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, David Brunnstrom, Steve Holland, David Lawder, John Walcott and Tim Ahmann in Washington; writing by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Leslie Adler, James Dalgleish and Jonathan Oatis