Secretary of State Michael Pompeo flew to Asia to shore up a weakening sanctions regime on North Korea, nail down a date for a future summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un and assuage Chinese officials days after Vice President Mike Pence lambasted their country.
Things didn’t go as planned.
Instead, Pompeo found himself facing the limits of his boss’s efforts to woo Kim while confronting China. First, he was forced to negotiate on the tarmac in Pyongyang over who could attend his meetings with Kim. Later, he received a public rebuke in Beijing from the China’s foreign minister. He flew back to the US with little new to show for three days of lightning diplomacy.
The trip illustrates the administration’s struggle to counter challenges to American influence in Asia as the president focuses on turbulent domestic politics ahead of a pivotal midterm election. While Trump is seeking a second meeting with Kim—possibly ahead of the November 6 voting—he’s sending Pence in his place to regional summits planned for next month in Singapore and Papua New Guinea.
Pompeo’s hurdles were highest in Pyongyang. While the two sides had kind words for each other —Kim was reported to find the visit “wonderful”— Pompeo came away without a date for another Trump-Kim meeting or any news on when key milestones in denuclearisation might take place.
“Four months after the US-North Korean summit and we still don’t even have a common definition of seemingly straightforward terms such as ‘denuclearisation’ and ‘Korean Peninsula,’” Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said via email.
Pompeo, however, told a reporter travelling with him that “we made significant progress. We’ll continue to make significant progress, and we are further along in making that progress than any administration in an awfully long time.”
He cited Kim’s invitation to have inspectors visit the already dismantled Punggye-ri test facility, the site of all six of the regime’s nuclear blasts. But when asked when inspectors might arrive, Pompeo offered few specifics.
“As soon as we get it logistically worked out, Chairman Kim said he’s ready” to “allow them to come in,” and once the arrangements are made “we’ll put them on the ground,” Pompeo said.
Things didn’t go much better a day later in Beijing, where Pompeo had the bad fortune of being the first senior US official to visit the country since a blistering speech on China last week from Pence. China is a bigger threat than Russia, Pence said, and is actively “meddling in America’s democracy.”
In an unusually public rebuke, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the US of undermining mutual trust between the countries as Pompeo sat across from him. The secretary of state began his response talking about “fundamental disagreement” on key issues between the world’s two biggest economies, but signaling optimism that “candid” conversations would bring both sides together.
Those disagreements—a burgeoning trade war, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and US policy towards Taiwan—are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Moreover, Chinese officials signalled the discord undermines efforts to cooperate on North Korea, making the US bid to disarm Kim’s regime even less likely.