WASHINGTON • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will leave for North Korea tomorrow seeking agreement on a plan for the country's denuclearisation, despite mounting doubts about Pyongyang's willingness to abandon a weapons programme that threatens the United States and its allies.
In announcing Mr Pompeo's travel plans on Monday, White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said the US was "continuing to make progress" in talks with North Korea.
She declined to confirm or deny recent media reports of intelligence assessments saying North Korea has been expanding its weapons capabilities.
The State Department said Mr Pompeo would head from Pyongyang to Tokyo on Saturday, where he would discuss North Korean denuclearisation with Japanese and South Korean leaders.
It will be Mr Pompeo's first visit to North Korea since the June 12 summit in Singapore between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un, at which the North Korean leader agreed to "work towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula".
The joint summit statement, however, gave no details on how or when Pyongyang might give up its weapons.
US officials have since been trying to flesh out details to produce an agreement that might live up to Mr Trump's enthusiastic portrayal of the outcome.
The US goal remained "the final, fully verified denuclearisation of (North Korea), as agreed to by Chairman Kim in Singapore," a State Department spokesman said.
A US delegation led by US ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim met North Korean counterparts at Panmunjom on the border between North and South Korea on Sunday to discuss the next steps on the implementation of the summit declaration, the State Department said.
"We had good meetings yesterday and... the Secretary of State will be there later this week to continue those discussions," Ms Sanders told a White House briefing.
She endorsed comments made on Sunday by White House National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said he believed the bulk of North Korea's weapons programmes could be dismantled within a year "if they have the strategic decision already made to do that".
"There is great momentum right now for a positive change and we are moving together for further negotiations," Ms Sanders said.
However, some experts disputed Mr Bolton's optimistic timeframe for decommissioning North Korea's weapons, even if North Korea were willing to agree to such moves, amid multiple reports suggesting otherwise.
An NBC News report on Friday quoted US officials saying US intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in talks with the US.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that US intelligence officials had concluded that North Korea did not intend to fully give up its nuclear arsenal and is considering ways to hide the number of weapons it has.
The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California issued a report on Monday saying recent satellite imagery showed North Korea was completing a major expansion of a key manufacturing plant for solid-fuel missiles. The images showed North Korea finishing construction of the exterior of the plant around the time Mr Kim was meeting Mr Trump, the report said.
Last week, 38 North, a North Korea monitoring project, said satellite imagery showed the North had been upgrading its Yongbyon nuclear complex.