Contrary to expectations, there were no meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho at the ASEAN Regional Forum, which was held on Aug. 4. Pompeo remained upbeat, saying, “I am optimistic that we will get this done in a timeline,” but he also criticized the North, saying that it was “in violation of one or both of the U.N. Security Council resolutions. We can see we still have a ways to go to achieve the ultimate outcome we're looking for.” Ri, too, commented on denuclearization. He said in a speech at Singapore, “We would not act unilaterally unless the U.S. takes actions to demonstrate its clear determination to ease our concerns,” showing that there is a yawning gap between the adversaries.
With the U.S. and North Korea sparring over the North’s complete denuclearization and declaring a formal end to the 1950-1953 Korean War, the political landscape of the Korean Peninsula seems to have been thrown into disarray this month. Although Pyongyang had returned possible remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War on July 27, Washington targeted a Russian bank, which is said to have handled transactions for the recalcitrant regime, a North Korean, and two front companies associated with the North — a Chinese entity and a North Korean entity — for violating its North Korea sanctions on Aug. 3. The move was separate from the U.S. implementation of the Singapore agreement reached in June.
Fortunately, the adversaries have seemingly expressed their intention to continue denuclearization talks — Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un recently exchanged letters in light of North Korea’s transfer of remains. When the success of the denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang depends on the two leaders’ determination, the Trump-Kim letter diplomacy is expected to open the door for a second summit meeting. It is particularly encouraging that Trump recently tweeted in response to Kim’s letter, “I look forward to seeing you soon!” It adds more weight to speculation that Kim may travel to the U.S. in September to attend the United Nations General Assembly and meet with Trump again.
To end the impasse over North Korea’s denuclearization, Washington and Pyongyang should be serious about having working-level talks. The most important task is to hold both official and unofficial talks as effectively as possible. Since the two countries have already agreed to the North’s denuclearization and security guarantees, they should hammer out details to implement the agreement as soon as possible. As a start, the adversaries should start discussing the formation of a working group for the North’s denuclearization, as Pompeo and Kim reportedly agreed upon during his visit to Pyongyang in July.