U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Japan Saturday where he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
Heading to Asia on Friday, Pompeo said he hoped to develop options for the timing and location of the next summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
His Asia tour will include a stop in North Korea, his fourth visit to the isolated nation, where he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“There are complex scheduling, logistics issues,” said Pompeo en route to Japan, adding he was hopeful that a general date and location could be reached after his meeting with Kim.
When asked if he is bringing any message or gift to Kim on Trump’s behalf, Pompeo told the traveling press: “I am not bringing anything that we are prepared at this point to talk about publicly. “
Pompeo's trip to North Korea this year comes as Washington and Pyongyang are making arrangements for a second summit between their leaders.
“I’m optimistic that we’ll come away from that with better understandings, deeper progress, and a plan forward not only for the summit between the two leaders, but for us to continue the efforts to build out a pathway for denuclearization,” said Pompeo earlier this week.
But analysts said Pompeo faces challenges to ensure a second summit produces real progress toward denuclearization.
“I think they cannot come out of these trips any more with broad statements of principles; there needs to be some actual, tangible movement on the nuclear issue,” said Victor Cha who is senior advisor and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The core issues have not been addressed by North Korea, including a list of nuclear weapons and facilities, a way to verify that information, and a timeline for disposing of these things, added Cha during a phone briefing on Friday.
North Korea has been seeking a formal end to the 1950-53 Korea War, but the United States has said Pyongyang must give up its nuclear weapons first. North Korea has not satisfied Washington’s demands for a complete inventory of its nuclear weapons.
At a briefing on Wednesday, Pompeo would not give details of the ongoing negotiations, including the possibility of an end-of-war declaration.
While there is value to engagement at the highest levels, the downside is that this publicly raises the stakes for each meeting, according to former U.S. officials and experts.
“Real progress can only come from a sustained diplomatic process at lower levels, grounded in realistic expectations about what both sides can achieve,” former State Department official Mintaro Oba told VOA.
“We don’t have a diplomatic process in place,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I would really like to see him go in there and lay out the vision for how do we get to a peace regime, step-by-step.”
While Washington is resisting calls from Russia and China to relax tough international sanctions against North Korea, some former U.S. officials say the so-called "maximum pressure" campaign is diminished by Trump’s sometimes undiplomatic rhetoric.
“There’s an 800 pound elephant in the room and that is our own president,” said former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton who recently retired.
“His actions have helped put the nail in coffin of maximum pressure. For example, when he says North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat that undercuts our diplomats,” added Thornton at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Friday.
Pompeo is traveling to Japan, North Korea, South Korea, and China from October 6-8. In Tokyo, he is meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Kono. In Seoul, Pompeo is meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. In Beijing, he is meeting with his counterparts and likely will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The top U.S. diplomat’s trip to Beijing comes after Vice President Mike Pence stepped up criticism and laid out a more competitive strategy with China during a major policy speech at the Hudson Institute on Thursday.
Observers said Washington’s new approach to Beijing is characterized by competition and confrontation.
“There is the beginning of some talk that we are really moving toward a renewed cold war, this time between the U.S. and China,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at CSIS.
While China wants stability in the Korean Peninsula and does not want a U.S. presence, Beijing is using the North Korea issue to strengthen its relations with Washington, added Glaser.
“My own guess is that the U.S.-China relationship will pretty much be on hold until after the midterm elections. The Chinese have some hope that some of what is going on is being motivated by political concerns and that there might be more of a chance for some reasonable, constructive dialogue with the United States after the midterms,” said Glaser.
Senior officials traveling with Pompeo include Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Southeast Asia Patrick Murphy, and White House National Security Council’s lead Korea official Allison Hooker.
This would be Biegun’s first travel to Pyongyang as the U.S. envoy. It is widely expected that Biegun’s counterpart--North Korea’s vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui will return to Pyongyang from Beijing for talks.
The invitation for Pompeo to return to Pyongyang was made during his meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly session.