Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has promised that the United States will help rebuild North Korea’s ramshackle economy if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons. His comments came ahead of the President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12.

At a news conference in Washington, Pompeo stressed that the decision by the Kim regime to release three American prisoners during his shuttle diplomacy mission to Pyongyang earlier this week had paved  the way for successful discussions.

“If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearize, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on the par with our South Korean friends,” Pompeo told the media after talks with his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha.

“If Chairman Kim chooses the right path, there is a future brimming with peace and prosperity for the North Korean people,” he said, adding that the US had a track record of support for the Korean people that was “second to none.”

Still, Pompeo made it clear that the two sides remained far apart on the key issue of what North Korea means by “denuclearization.” He pointed out that his conversations with Kim in Pyongyang were “substantive”  and believed both sides understood the ultimate goal of the summit.

“We had good conversations, substantive conversations. Conversations that involved deep complex problems, challenges; the strategic decision that Chairman Kim has before him about how it is he wishes to proceed and if he is prepared, in exchange for the assurances we are ready to provide to him if he is prepared to fully denuclearize.”

Korean peninsula

In spite of an easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula and a return to dialogue in recent months, Kim has given no indication that he is willing to go beyond statements of broad support for the concept of denuclearization and unilaterally abandoning nuclear weapons.

To underline the challenges ahead, North Korea’s former spy chief Kim Yong-chul, the director of the United Front Department, boasted in a toast to Pompeo during lunch in Pyongyang on Wednesday that the country had “perfected” its nuclear capability.

He said the regime’s policy was now “to concentrate efforts on economic progress,” but insisted that this had nothing to do with international sanctions imposed on the country.

Those sanctions would not be lifted until Kim agreed to carry through his proposal to denuclearize, Kang, the South Korean Foreign Minister, confirmed.

“We very much hope to see further steps, more concrete steps toward denuclearization at the US-North Korea summit, so we’re not talking about sanctions relief at this point,” she said.

On Thursday, the US Vice-President Mike Pence praised Kim for making moves toward peace but expressed caution.

“What Kim Jong-un has said publicly and in discussions is that he is prepared to negotiate to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “Those words are important, but we’ll see what they mean.”

Pompeo also made it crystal clear that it was imperative that North Korea does not “possess the capacity to threaten, not only the United States but the world, with nuclear weapons.”

Shedding significant light on his conversations with Kim, the Secretary of State described his talks as “warm.”

“We had good conversations about the histories of our two nations,” Pompeo added.”We talked about the fact that America has often in history had adversaries who we are now close partners and our hope that we can achieve the same with respect to North Korea.”

Since an ad hoc 1953 armistice put an end to active hostilities between the North and the South, South Korea has emerged from the devastation to become a leading world economy.

But the North has remained one of the world’s most isolated states and its outdated economy has been further battered by a United Nations-backed “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions.

Personal touch

During the past year, Kim and Trump have added a personal touch to more than 60 years of international enmity, swapping insults and openly threatening devastating direct military action.

But since South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in reached out to the North, reopening direct talks, and following Kim invitation to Trump to a summit to discuss disarmament, the mood has changed.

Even so, risks remain, according to Abraham Denmark, an Asia expert and the former senior US defense official.

“There’s a danger here of the peace track moving more quickly than the denuclearization track,” warned Denmark. “If that happens, it could give North Korea an opportunity to try to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.”

Striking the right balance will be crucial in the months ahead.

The former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered three recommendations to Trump: allow experts to make the deal, don’t negotiate away the “equities” of others, including Japan and South Korea, and “don’t be anxious to remove American troops from the equation.”

“If we can hold to those three principles, this might work,” Rice said at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

– with reporting from Reuters and AFP