AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Now to the story of an important meeting that did not happen. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to be in New York today for a meeting with officials from North Korea. On the agenda was planning the next summit. But the North Koreans did not come. The State Department blames a scheduling issue. And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, it's the latest sign of just how difficult this nuclear diplomacy is.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June, they vowed to improve relations and work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. U.S. officials said North Korea could move quickly to denuclearize. Trump now says he's not in a rush.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's no rush whatsoever. You know, before I got here, they were dealing with this for over 70 years and I guess on the nuclear front for 25 years. That's a long time. I've been there. I probably left Singapore four or five months ago. And we made more progress in that four or five months than they've made in 70 years, and nobody else could have done what I've done.
KELEMEN: As long as North Korea isn't launching missiles or conducting nuclear tests, the president says his policy is working. Behind the scenes, it hasn't been easy. The North Koreans have yet to start working-level talks with the State Department's point person, Stephen Biegun. And they canceled plans to travel to New York. That could be a North Korean bargaining tactic or a sign of real problems, says Joel Wit, who runs the 38 North project at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
JOEL WIT: The North Koreans know very well what the U.S. opening position is, and basically the U.S. opening position is, you denuclearize, and then we will do something for you. In other words, you go first, and then we will follow. And that's completely unacceptable to the North Koreans.
KELEMEN: They want a step-by-step approach which includes sanctions relief. China and Russia seem to agree and are pushing for that in the U.N. Security Council. Wit says the Trump administration is beginning to look isolated.
WIT: The administration talks constantly about maintaining maximum pressure, but in reality, there is no maximum pressure without support certainly from China and Russia and maybe even from South Korea. They're starting to have second thoughts about sanctions as well.
KELEMEN: President Trump told reporters Wednesday he's open to sanctions relief.
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TRUMP: Now, I'd love to take the sanctions off, but they have to be responsive, too. It's a two-way street.
KELEMEN: The president often sounds more upbeat in public, once describing a letter he received from Kim Jong Un as a piece of art. So the North Koreans may prefer to work around lower-level administration officials, says Frank Aum of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
FRANK AUM: They think it's easier to deal with Trump directly rather than his staff, who seem to be a little more hesitant about making concessions. So maybe they feel like if they go to Trump directly, they'll get more concessions.
KELEMEN: At some point, Aum says the North Koreans have to start working-level talks if only to plan for the next Trump-Kim summit expected early next year. At the moment, Aum says, the U.S. and North Korea are stuck on two key issues.
AUM: Pace and price - you know, who's going to move first, and what is each side willing to concede?
KELEMEN: Both sides have taken some confidence-building steps. The U.S. suspended military exercises with South Korea. Aum, who used to work at the Pentagon, says that's a risk worth taking if it leads to real diplomacy. But eventually, he warns, U.S. military readiness will take a hit, so the Trump administration can't let the North Koreans stall too long. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.