WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday he's "very hopeful" that a planned U.S.-North Korean summit will proceed but laid the fate of the historic meeting squarely with Kim Jong Un, who won't be reassured by U.S. demands for "rapid denuclearization."
The decision about whether the June 12 meeting in Singapore between Kim and President Donald Trump happens is "ultimately up to Chairman Kim," Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Lawmakers' questioning of Pompeo followed Trump's comment Tuesday that "there's a very substantial chance" the meeting would not proceed as scheduled.
Trump told reporters Wednesday, "Whatever it is, we will know next week about Singapore and if we go I think it will be a great thing for North Korea."
On Thursday, though, a top North Korean official said recent comments by Vice President Mike Pence were "stupid" and "ignorant" and warned the country is willing to pull out of the summit. Pence told Fox News on Monday that North Korea could end up like Libya if Kim failed to make a deal.
"Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States," said Choe Son Hui, vice minister of foreign affairs.
Amid the uncertainty, a White House team is headed to Singapore this weekend to work on logistics for the trip. White House spokesman Raj Shah said the effort would be led by Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff for operations. Shah noted that an advance team goes out ahead of all scheduled presidential teams.
Also, the U.N. Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea has cleared the way for all members of Kim's delegation to travel to Singapore for the Trump meeting — even if they are on the U.N. sanctions blacklist, according to diplomats at the world body who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process was private. It also allows all delegation members to take home luxury goods whose import to North Korea is banned by the council. Kim himself is not on the sanctions blacklist, which bans travel and requires all countries to freeze assets.
If it goes ahead, it will be first meeting between a U.S. and a North Korean leader during more than six decades of hostility, and it would come just months after the North's rapid progress toward attaining a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike America fueled fears of war. But the North unexpectedly pulled out of planned peace talks with South Korea last week, objecting to U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and also threatened to abandon the planned Trump-Kim meeting, accusing the U.S. of a "one-sided demand" that it give up its nuclear weapons.
North Korea took particular offense at comments by Trump's hawkish national security adviser John Bolton that the U.S. was looking to the example of Libya, which relinquished its nuclear program in the early 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief. Libya's longtime autocratic leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed several years later after a Western-backed military intervention.
Pompeo steered away from that comparison, but said the U.S. wants "rapid denuclearization, total and complete, that won't be extended over time." He said Bolton's comments were alluding to the failure of past disarmament deals with North Korea "where in exchange for act x the United States sends a check across the transom," Pompeo said. "It is indeed not our model."
North Korea, which views its nukes as a guarantee that its authoritarian regime won't go the same way as those in Libya and Iraq, has said it wants a "phased and synchronous" approach to denuclearization, which neighboring China supports.
China's visiting foreign minister said his country supports the summit being held at its currently scheduled time and venue and sees no reason for a delay.
"There is already good basis and necessary conditions at the moment," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters at a joint news conference at the State Department with Pompeo. "If you want to solve the problem, now is the time. If you want peace, now is the time. If you want to make history, now is the time."
Trump hedged on the issue Tuesday. When asked if there could be an incremental approach, providing incentives along the way to the North, he said, "I don't think I want to totally commit myself. But all in one would be a lot better."
To date, North Korea has taken few concrete steps beyond halting the nuclear and missile tests that ratcheted up tensions last year. On Wednesday it was escorting a group of international reporters, including an Associated Press Television crew, to witness the closure of its atomic test site. While that could set a positive tone ahead of the summit, it is not an irreversible move and would need to be followed by many more significant measures to meet Trump's demands for real denuclearization.
Pompeo said that "if we can get America's interests safe and secure we are prepared to do a great deal," including security assurances for Kim. Pompeo said denuclearization would cover nuclear weapons, missiles, engines and systems related to space launch rockets, production of fissile material and associated technology and research.
The former CIA director, who has met twice with Kim since the start of April, told the committee that it's his hope that when Trump and Kim confer "we can get the North Koreans to make this strategic shift about how best to serve the country — that the nuclear weapons program isn't in fact the thing that keeps the regime in power, but the thing that prevents the regime from being in a place it wants to be with economic success."
Pompeo also touched on an issue that was once central to the administration's campaign of "maximum pressure" on North Korea, but has been rarely mentioned by U.S. officials since Trump agreed to the summit: human rights.
He said he had raised it with Kim "and it will be part of the discussions as we move forward." Asked by lawmakers whether he had a commitment from Kim to make it part of a deal, Pompeo said, "We have broad outlines of what it is that each nation is prepared to do."
The summit would offer a historic chance for peace between adversaries technically at war since the Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace treaty. But there also is the risk of a diplomatic failure that would allow the North to revive and advance its weapons program.
AP writers Catherine Lucey in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.