SEOUL (NYTIMES) - North Korea pressed its demand Friday (Aug 17) that the United States agree to declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, as South Korea's leader indicated that the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was preparing for his fourth visit to the North.
Pompeo, the point man in President Donald Trump's efforts to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, has been struggling to follow up on the agreement reached between Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, when they met in Singapore in June in the first summit between their nations.
In Singapore, Kim committed to work towards the "complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula." But the summit agreement lacked details on how to achieve that goal, and Pompeo and his team of negotiators has struggled since then to win concrete action on this front from their North Korean counterparts.
When he met with representatives of political parties in Seoul on Thursday, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said that negotiations between the United States and North Korea have recently gained "speed," with Pompeo planning to visit North Korea again, according to Yun So-ha, an opposition leader, who briefed reporters on the meeting.
On Thursday, Pompeo said his team was "continuing to make progress" with the North Koreans, and said he hoped that "we can make a big step here before too long."
"We're continuing to engage in conversation with them about a path forward to a brighter future for the North Koreans," Pompeo said Thursday during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. He also commended the North for not conducting any nuclear or missile tests since late last year.
Pompeo first met Kim in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on Easter weekend and again in May to help prepare for Trump's summit with Kim. He again visited Pyongyang last month to urge North Korea to carry out the Singapore summit deal by moving quickly toward denuclearisation, but notably failed to meet Kim.
At the end of this visit, North Korea called his demands for denuclearisation "gangster-like."
The State Department has yet to announce whether and when Pompeo planned to visit North Korea again.
But South Korean officials have said that Moon has scheduled his own visit to Pyongyang in September to discuss improving inter-Korean relations with Kim after Pompeo's fourth trip to the North.
On Wednesday, Moon proposed a bold expansion of economic cooperation with North Korea, including reconnecting the rail systems of the two Koreas, should the North denuclearise.
The latest hitch in negotiations has been over North Korea's demand that the United States join the two Koreas in declaring an end to the Korean War. The conflict was halted with an armistice that was signed in 1953, but for decades the North has demanded that the United States negotiate a peace treaty to formally end the war.
Recently, it has renewed its push for a political statement in which the two Koreas and the United States - and perhaps, China too - jointly declare an end to the war, as a prelude to complex negotiations for replacing the armistice with a peace treaty.
Moon supports the proposal, arguing that such a statement will help ease tensions and encourage North Korea to denuclearise. When he met with Kim in April for their first summit, the two Korean leaders agreed to push for such a declaration this year.
But US officials fear that North Korea may be seeking such a declaration to undermine the rationale for the US military presence in South Korea without getting any commitment by Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons. They insist that North Korea take meaningful steps towards dismantling its nuclear weapons programme before Washington makes any such concessions.
But the North on Friday pushed back.
"There is no reason to ignore a declaration to end the war," said a commentary in the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's main state-run newspaper, on Friday.
"It is a preliminary and essential process to pave the ground for easing tensions and building permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula."
The North's government, state-run news media and propaganda websites have issued a steady stream of similar statements in recent weeks, indicating that the declaration of an end to the war was the North's latest negotiating goal.
When Pompeo visited Pyongyang early last month to seek more concrete steps toward denuclearisation, North Korea indicated that it was willing to take steps in exchange for the end-to-the-war declaration.
One of the first things North Korea should do is to declare all its nuclear weapons-related facilities, US officials say.
North Korea insists that it will move towards the complete denuclearisation of the peninsula only in phases and will do so only if Washington matches them with corresponding measures to improve ties and provide security guarantees for the North.
"The United States must implement phased and simultaneous measures, like the end-of-war declaration, to build mutual trust," the Rodong commentary said.