Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that he and his newly announced special representative to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, will be traveling to Pyongyang next week.
It will be Pompeo's fourth trip to Pyongyang, but, while officials hope he will have the opportunity to engage directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said later on Thursday there "are no plans for a meeting" with Kim on the trip.
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Kim snubbed Pompeo during the last round of meetings in North Korea early last month, which sources told CNN went "as badly as it could have gone."
Pompeo announced the hiring of Biegun at the State Department on Thursday. He's a former auto executive at Ford Motor Co. and a former senior staff member to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the George W. Bush administration who was rumored to be a possible candidate to replace former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Biegun assumes the role as special envoy to North Korea at a time when talks between the two countries appear to have stalled over the issue of denuclearization.
"The appointment of Stephen Biegun as North Korean special envoy comes at a critical time in US-North Korean relations. A full-time envoy is absolutely necessary to make progress, and given all the upcoming diplomatic activities September could be a make or break month for the Korean Peninsula," according to David Maxwell, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Given the personal relationship between President Trump and Chairman Kim, my recommendation is that the President communicate that Mr. Biegun is his man for all North Korean negotiations, to empower him and establish his credibility with Kim," Maxwell said.
Diplomatic sources said that the US has now presented North Korea with specific proposals for a path and timeline to denuclearization, all of which Kim has thus far rejected, believing the US's stance to be "gangster-like."
The latest assessment of North Korea's nuclear program released by the International Atomic Energy Agency calls into question Pyongyang's commitment to denuclearization amid ongoing activities at certain sites in the country and the inability for IAEA inspectors to access those sites. The report cites "cause for grave concern" about these activities.
And according to the prominent monitoring group 38 North, commercial satellite imagery from Aug. 16 of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, North Korea's only operational space launch facility, indicates that no significant dismantlement activity has taken place at either the engine test stand or the launch pad since Aug. 3.
Last month, 38 North released images of the Sohae station, prompting Trump to say North Korea had begun dismantling "a key missile site."
But according to the group's most recent analysis, "no new dismantlement activity is apparent since August 3."
All eyes on Kim
Trump was asked in an interview with Reuters on Monday if North Korea had done anything beyond dismantling a test site to show it was in the process of denuclearizing. "I do believe they have," he said, but did not provide further details.
Trump also said in that interview another summit with Kim would "most likely" happen but offered no details on timing or venue.
When the two leaders met in Singapore in June, Trump praised the young autocrat, saying Kim had "to be a rough guy," but that he's "smart, loves his people, he loves his country. He wants a lot of good things and that's why he's doing this."
Congressional lawmakers also remain frustrated by the administration's "lack of transparency" regarding its policy on North Korea.
"We've been asking Secretary Pompeo to come and explain the Trump administration's strategy on North Korea and Russia for a long time and they have failed to provide the necessary briefings or hearings to either the full Senate or the Foreign Relations Committee," Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee, told CNN on Tuesday.
Pompeo clashed with both Republicans and Democrats on several occasions when he appeared before the Senate committee last month, refusing to provide substantive details about Trump's meeting with Kim in Singapore.
"After three hours of testimony from the secretary last month, we still have no clarity on the policies our government is pursuing," Menendez said.
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