(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday played down his North Korean counterpart’s criticism of the U.S. at a regional security conference in Singapore, pointing to the sharp contrast to a year ago, when missiles and threats were flying.
Addressing the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on Saturday, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho complained that the U.S. has not shown itself willing to pursue phased, step-by-step “confidence-building” measures, following the June summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.
Ri called it “alarming” that the U.S. seemed to be going “back to the old” approach. He implied that by maintaining a tough stance on keeping sanctions in force, U.S. officials were going against Trump’s wishes.
But Pompeo seemed reluctant Sunday to view the minister’s comments as particularly negative. Asked about them as he flew back to Washington from a three-country Southeast Asian visit, he invited reporters accompanying him to “compare it to last year.”
“Compare the anger, frankly, over years and years, and hatred spewed by the North Koreans,” he added.
Pompeo also said that Ri had in his remarks had in fact made clear the regime’s commitment to “denuclearize.”
Last year’s ARF, a gathering of the 10 ASEAN member-states and two dozen other countries, took place in a much more heated atmosphere.
When the top U.S. and North Korean diplomats participated in the forum – held in Manila on that occasion – Ri declared that North Korea would “under no circumstances” negotiate away its nuclear weapons capability and ballistic missiles.
He also underlined that all of the United States was now within range of Pyongyang’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
The response from then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a simple one: “Just stop – stop these missile launches.”
Two days earlier the U.N. Security Council had unanimously adopted a new sanctions resolution, in response to a pair of launches, on July 4 and July 28, which for the first time saw the nuclear-capable Stalinist regime test-fire ICBMs, theoretically capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Amid belligerent rhetoric, the regime went on to conduct a nuclear test – its sixth and most powerful yet – in September, and then in November to carry out its most successful ICBM test launch to date.
This year brought a significant shift: North Korea took part in the Winter Olympic hosted by the South, and Kim later held two summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump sent Pompeo to Pyongyang twice – first as CIA director, then as secretary of state on a mission to bring home three Americans imprisoned by the regime. Two months ago, Trump and Kim held their historic summit in Singapore.
And as the administration frequently points out, North Korea has carried out no nuclear test or missile launch since the one in late November.
Visible progress since the Singapore summit has been limited to goodwill gestures on either side: U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea were suspended, and North Korea last week returned what are believed to be the remains of an unknown number of the 7,699 American personnel missing since the Korean War ended in 1953 who remain “unaccounted for.”
Also last week, Kim sent a letter to Trump. Trump replied, with a letter that was handed to Ri in Singapore by the administration’s point man in logistical negotiations with North Korea, Ambassador Sung Kim. Neither letters’ contents has been made public.
In Singapore, Pompeo held what he called afterwards “a quick, polite exchange” with Ri, but did not hold a substantive meeting.
In an interview with a locally-based regional television network he conceded that the timeline for shutting down Pyongyang’s nuclear programs was largely in Kim’s hands.
“The ultimate timeline for denuclearization will be set by Chairman Kim, at least in part,” Pompeo said. “The decision is his. He made a commitment and we’re very hopeful that over the coming weeks and months we can make substantial progress towards that, and put the North Korean people on a trajectory towards a brighter future very quickly.”