Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left Thursday for North Korea in search of commitments and possible timetables from the Pyongyang regime on denuclearization and the return of remains of U.S. troops missing from the 1950-53 Korean War.
Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang and expected meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be his third since the thaw in relations and President Donald Trump's praise for Kim's leadership. It will also include his first overnight stay in the North Korean capital.
Following talks in Pyongyang, Pompeo will go to Tokyo on Sunday to brief Japanese and South Korean allies on the outcome of the meetings.
In a statement Thursday, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha will meet with Pompeo and his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Taro Kono.
"Minister Kang will listen to the outcome of Secretary Pompeo's North Korea trip and hold in-depth discussions on ways to achieve the goals of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of permanent peace," the statement said.
South Korea, Japan and the U.S. military appear to have been caught off-guard by some of Trump's tweets and comments since the June 12 Singapore summit with Kim.
A day after the summit, Trump announced that the U.S. was canceling joint military exercises with South Korea that the North has traditionally called practice for an invasion. Trump's critics said there appeared to be no corresponding gesture by the North Koreans.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said at the time that it "needs to find out the exact meaning or intention behind [Trump's] comments."
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said, "The drills and the U.S. military stationed in South Korea play a vital role in East Asia's security."
The Pentagon later said that the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, which usually begin in late August and last year involved about 50,000 South Korean and 17,500 U.S. troops, were being canceled indefinitely.
At the Singapore summit, Kim signed a joint declaration that "reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," but recent reports suggest that North Korea may be backtracking.
Last Saturday, The Washington Post, citing U.S. intelligence officials, said the North was working to conceal its nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The report also cited a Defense Intelligence Agency estimate that the North is unlikely to follow through on the pledge to denuclearize.
Last month, the 38 North website, which monitors North Korean activity, said commercial satellite imagery of North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station showed no dismantlement activity of its rocket engine test stand.
"This stand has been suggested as the probable location [Trump] was referring to in his post-Singapore summit statements that North Korea is 'destroying their engine site. They're blowing it up.' "
Trump's statements on the return of the remains of missing U.S. troops have also been problematic. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPMA), about 7,700 U.S. troops are missing from the Korean War, and about 5,300 of that total are believed to have fallen in North Korea.
At a June 20 rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Trump said, "We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains sent back today, already 200 got sent back."
At a Cabinet meeting the next day, Trump said that he understood "that they've already sent back or are in the process of sending back the remains of our great heroes who died in North Korea during the war."
But on June 28, Pompeo told the Senate Appropriations Committee, "We have not yet physically received them."
The U.S. has moved about 100 wooden transfer cases near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas in preparation for the return of remains.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month that the United Nations command in South Korea would initially take charge of the transfer of remains -- when they occur -- and would then turn them over to the custody of the U.S. military.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.