By Hyonhee Shin and David Brunnstrom
SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a second day of talks in North Korea on Saturday attempting to agree details on how to dismantle the country’s nuclear program, and both sides said they had things to “clarify” from the previous day.
After spending his first night in the North Korean capital in three visits so far this year, Pompeo left the government guest house where he spent the night to make a secure phone call and update U.S. President Donald Trump on the talks.
Pompeo then sat down again with Kim Yong Chol, the top North Korean party official and former spy agency chief with whom he played a key role in arranging the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12.
Kim Yong Chol said at the start of the meeting the two had had “very serious discussion on very important matters yesterday”. He joked that, as a result, Pompeo “might have not slept well last night” at the prestigious Paekhwawon, or 100 Flowers Garden, guest house.
According to a pool report from U.S. reporters traveling with him, Pompeo replied: “Director Kim, I slept just fine. We did have a good set of conversations yesterday. I appreciate that and I look forward to our continued conversations today as well.”
Pompeo reiterated that Trump was “committed to a brighter future for North Korea”.
“So the work that we do, the path toward complete denuclearization, building a relationship between our two countries, is vital for a brighter North Korea and the success that our two presidents demand of us,” Pompeo said.
Kim agreed that the work was important. “There are things that I have to clarify,” he said.
Pompeo responded: “There are things that I have to clarify as well.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Pompeo had been “very firm” on three basic goals: the complete denuclearization of North Korea, security assurances, and the repatriation of U.S. remains from the 1950-53 Korean War.
“He’s spoken about every element of the agreement from Singapore,” she told reporters, according to a pool report from Pyongyang.
She said there had been no softening in the U.S. positions, although she would not explain why the department no longer defines its aim as “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (CIVD).
“Our policy hasn’t changed,” she said several times when asked about CVID. “Our expectation is exactly what the president and Kim Jong Un jointly agreed to in Singapore, and that is the denuclearization of North Korea.”
Kim Jong Un made a broad commitment to “work toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in Singapore but offered no details of how or when North Korea might dismantle a weapons program that Trump has vowed will not be allowed to threaten the United States.
Trump, meanwhile, committed to providing “security guarantees” to North Korea and Washington later called off one of its major joint military exercises with South Korea, which Pyongyang regularly denounces as rehearsals for invasion.
Nauert said U.S. and North Korean officials had set up working groups to deal with “nitty gritty stuff”, including verification of efforts to achieve denuclearization, which would be headed on the U.S. side by Sung Kim, a Korean-American who is also ambassador to the Philippines.
Nauert said Pompeo and his staff later moved into a working lunch with their North Korean counterparts.
She said U.S. national security adviser John Bolton and White House chief of staff John Kelly were also on Pompeo’s earlier briefing call with Trump.
Pompeo held nearly three hours of talks with Kim Yong Chol on Friday and a working dinner that Nauert described as further “relationship building”. She said the dinner lasted an hour and 45 minutes and at times the two were “cracking jokes” and “exchanging pleasantries”.
It was unclear whether Pompeo would meet Kim Jong Un, as he did on his previous trips, before heading for Tokyo later on Saturday.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Pompeo’s delegation was taking part in high-level talks for implementing the Singapore summit statement but gave no more details.
Pompeo said before arriving in North Korea he was seeking to “fill in” some details on North Korea’s commitments and maintain the momentum towards implementing the agreement from the summit.
U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters that Pompeo would try to agree on at least an initial list of nuclear sites and an inventory that could be checked against available intelligence.
The issue of the remains of U.S. soldiers missing from the Korean War is also high on the agenda. Trump said after the Singapore summit Kim had agreed to send the remains back to the United States.
Both issues are considered essential tests of whether Kim is serious about talks. North Korean officials have yet to demonstrate that in working-level talks, the intelligence officials said.
Some officials in the State and Defense Departments and inU.S. intelligence agencies are worried that Trump has put himself at a disadvantage by overstating the results of the Singapore summit.
Pompeo had said before the Singapore summit Trump would reject anything short of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization”.
The State Department says pressure will remain until North Korea denuclearizes but, in statements this week, it redefined the U.S. goal as “the final, fully verified denuclearization” of the country.
Some U.S. officials and experts have said the change in language amounted to a softening in approach. The State Department said its policy remains unchanged.
Pompeo’s talks will be closely watched in the region. He is due to meet officials from allies South Korea and Japan in Tokyo on Sunday.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL and David Brunnstrom in TOKYO; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham and David Chance in WASHINGTON; Editing by Leslie Adler and Paul Tait)