As President Donald Trump hails “progress being made,” a source familiar with details of the high-profile visit of North Korea’s top negotiator this month says those discussions – at both the State Department level and with the White House – “got nowhere” on denuclearization. A second source agreed with that assessment.
“North Korea relationship is best it has ever been with U.S. No testing, getting remains, hostages returned. Decent chance of Denuclearization,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “Time will tell what will happen with North Korea, but at the end of the previous administration, relationship was horrendous and very bad things were about to happen. Now a whole different story. I look forward to seeing Kim Jong Un shortly. Progress being made-big difference!”
The President made his declaration a day after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told members of Congress that North Korea “is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons.” His assertion of progress also comes less than two weeks after the White House and State Department held talks with North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol.
One source familiar with those talks said that the discussions focused entirely on the planning of the next summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, with the North Korean leader still refusing to yield anything until he gets a major commitment from the Americans, namely a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War.
The White House announced the summit, which they said would take place “near the end of February,” after Trump met with Kim Yong Chol for nearly an hour and a half in the Oval Office. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at the time that denuclearization had come up in that meeting.
“We’ve continued to make progress. We’re continuing to have conversations. The US is going to continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization. We’ve had very good steps in good faith from the North Koreans in releasing the hostages and other moves so we’re going to continue those conversations,” she said.
A source with knowledge of discussions told CNN the US has had a difficult time advancing anything relating to denuclearization because the White House has been pushing for another summit in such a short time frame.
“There just hasn’t been enough time. This is North Korea,” the source added.
Kim Yong Chol also met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Representative on North Korea Steve Biegun twice while in Washington in mid-January. A State Department readout described the first as having been a “a good discussion … on efforts to make progress on the commitments President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un made at their summit in Singapore.”
In remarks to the World Economic Forum last week, Pompeo said, “There remains an awful lot of work to do, but good things have happened already.”
“The North Koreans aren’t conducting missile tests. The North Koreans aren’t conducting nuclear tests. There are many steps yet along the way towards achieving the denuclearization that was laid out in Singapore and in achieving the security and stability and peace on the peninsula that the two leaders agreed to as well. We’re determined to work towards achieving that. I believe at the end of February we’ll have another good marker along the way,” he said.
The State Department referred CNN to that quote when asked for comment on a lack of progress.
In remarks at the State Department a week prior, Vice President Mike Pence said that the US still awaits “concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region.”
Despite outward votes of confidence, a source told CNN that national security adviser John Bolton seemed to acknowledge behind closed doors that he expected the lack of progress on denuclearization negotiations. Another source close to the negotiations said that there isn’t anyone naïve enough in the US government to believe that the North Koreans would give up their nuclear program all at once.
Biegun is expected to travel next week for more preliminary talks with the North Koreans, which could be centered on drafting a joint declaration that Trump and Kim Jong Un would sign at the summit, according to two officials. He has been working on creating incentives to get the North Koreans to take more steps toward denuclearization, including soliciting money from Japan and South Korea that would go into a fund that North Korea would be able to access once they begin taking those steps.
There are concerns that Trump may try to use US troops levels in South Korea as a sweetener for Kim Jong Un.
“Recall that in the first summit Kim convinced Trump to cancel major US-South Korea military exercises. Trump claimed after the fact that it was a huge money saver,” said Eric Brewer, an international affairs fellow at the Center for New American Security and former NSC official who worked on the North Korea issue in the Trump White House.
“I hope that troop removal would still be a bridge too far for (Trump), but we know he’s not a big fan of alliances, and has shown a willingness to buck the recommendations of his advisers,” Brewer told CNN. “I guarantee his advisers are warning him not to, but he often doesn’t listen to his advisers.”
The defense cost sharing agreement between the US and South Korea expired at the end of the year and discussions remain at an impasse.
“The United States appreciates the considerable resources the ROK provides to support the Alliance, including its contribution towards the cost of maintaining the presence of U.S. forces in Korea through the Special Measures Agreement,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We stand by our ROK ally, including through shared obligations under our Mutual Defense Treaty. The U.S. commitment to the security of the ROK and its people remains ironclad.”
CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Kevin Liptak and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.