WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo distanced himself Wednesday from a previously stated goal of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons by the end of President Donald Trump’s first term in January 2021.
Trump himself said last week that he doesn't want to get into a "time game" over how long it will take North Korea to denuclearize.
Pompeo, who’s preparing for a trip to North Korea, said 2021 wasn’t his goal. But that date was referred to in a Sept. 19 statement in his name on the outcome of summit between the leaders of South and North Korea.
Pompeo told reporters that he had just been restating a potential timeline that was discussed at that summit.
"My comment about 2021 was not mine. I repeated it but it was a comment that had been made by the leaders who had their inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang. They talked about 2021 when they were gathered there. So I was reiterating this as a time line that they were potentially prepared to agree to," Pompeo said at the State Department.
In the Sept. 19 written statement, Pompeo had announced talks with North Korean officials involving him and newly appointed U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun. That marked a resumption of negotiations stalled over a lack of diplomatic progress since Trump's historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.
"This will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform" relations between the U.S. and North Korea "through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula," the statement said.
One week later, Trump held a news conference after the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations and praised his efforts to ease tensions and North Korea's cessation of nuclear and missile tests.
"We're not playing the time game," Trump told reporters Sept. 26. "If it takes two years, three years, or five months, it doesn't matter. There's no nuclear testing and there's not testing of rockets."
Pompeo on Sunday is scheduled to make his fourth visit to Pyongyang since spring. He said he's optimistic he'll come away with a plan for a second summit between Trump and Kim and progress on a "pathway for denuclearization." He said there's continuing international support for economic sanctions to remain on North Korea in the meantime.
North Korea, which has halted weapons tests and dismantled at least parts of a nuclear and rocket test sites, says it wants an easing of economic sanctions before it gives up its atomic weapons. North Korea's foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, told the U.N. last week "there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first."
The Trump administration faces congressional skepticism, even among allies of the president, about North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons because it has yet to take irreversible actions toward that end.
GOP Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for Asia, supports stiffer economic restrictions on North Korea and countries that trade with it. He said there should be no sanctions relief until there's at least "concrete steps" toward denuclearization.
He told The Associated Press that the U.S. is "not going to sit around holding the bouquet forever" waiting for Kim to follow through on the commitments he made at the June summit with Trump in Singapore. Gardner urged against a second Trump-Kim summit unless there's the prospect of progress.
“Opportunities to engage diplomatically, if they’re actually going to be successful, can be warranted, but if there’s no sense of progress I should urge the president not to do the meeting,” Gardner said.