Obama’s nuke expert discusses Hanoi summit
Currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, Einhorn served as the Obama administration’s point man for the execution of its policy towards Iran’s nuclear program.
As an expert on the denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, Einhorn said the status of current talks appears to be positive, albeit weighed down by apparent disagreements.
Einhorn believes there will be few breakthroughs at the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb. 27-28, but said tit-for-tat measures, without being too generous, could push the denuclearization process toward something significant.
Einhorn came to Seoul Monday to participate in the inaugural academic conference of the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies Thursday, where he will discuss the future of the Korean Peninsula with other panel members, such as former U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun.
The JoongAng Ilbo spoke to Einhorn Monday at a hotel in northern Seoul.
The following is an edited excerpt from the interview.
Q. What do you make of U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun’s negotiations with North Korea?
A. Steve Biegun is a very skilled professional. I know he has spent many months since he was appointed understanding the history and nuances of the issue. I am very impressed with his preparations and I am confident he will do everything possible to ensure success. He didn’t reveal much detail in public [about the negotiations with North Korea,] and that’s exactly what he should do. He had very detailed and frank discussions with Korean officials at the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Blue House, so I am encouraged by that. And Steve mentioned that discussions [with North Korea] were productive. That is better than if he had said they were not productive. But we have no basis to evaluate how much progress has been made.
Biegun also noted there is still hard work to do. What do you make of that?
In diplomatic speak, hard work means there are some big areas of disagreement. I think it is clear there remains significant gaps between the U.S. and the North Korean positions.
We’re going to have a second summit in little over two weeks with this big issue remaining. It is a little risky to schedule a summit meeting before you have done adequate preparation. I think it’s good finally that Steve is able to meet with his counterpart and have very detailed discussions. It’s too bad this didn’t happen several months ago and it probably would have been better to hold off on scheduling the second summit until these preparatory discussions had made some more progress.
Is there enough time to ensure a successful summit in Hanoi?
I don’t expect major breakthroughs in Hanoi. It’s two days, which is better than Singapore, so there’s a greater chance for more concrete progress. But I think we should still have modest expectations of what should come out of the summit. It would be nice if the leaders could reach a common definition of denuclearization and could agree to a deadline for achieving that common definition. But I don’t think they’ll be achieve either one since I think the two sides are too far apart. But there are meaningful things that could be done.
I think there could be an agreement on some significant reciprocal steps, steps on the denuclearization agenda and corresponding measures that the United States could take as well. But that’s not enough because these ad hoc corresponding measures don’t tell you where we are going. I think there has to be some sense of where we are going. I don’t think there can be agreement on the final destination, but I think there can be agreement on a process to try to achieve that goal. The combination of some concrete, ad hoc reciprocal steps, together with agreement on a negotiating process in order to achieve a road map would be very positive outcome from Hanoi.
What should be done on the North Korean side in regard to those reciprocal measures? You’ve said before that it should go beyond [dismantling the nuclear facilities at] Yongbyon.
At Stanford a couple of weeks ago, Biegun disclosed something I had not heard before - that the North Koreans had discussed the idea of dismantling all of their enrichment and reprocessing facilities, not just Yongbyon, but anywhere in North Korea. I don’t know if it had been disclosed before, but that would be an extremely positive step, and not just that they would declare that they’re doing this. They would have to declare all of the sites anywhere in Korea where they are engaged any enrichment related or reprocessing related activities, since it wouldn’t be enough for that to say they’ve stopped producing.
They would have to declare and turn over all sites. The United States and the Republic of Korea [South Korea] would not take that declaration at face value. We would look at their list and compare it with what our own intelligence agencies tell us about these facilities. It would be extremely unlikely that their list would match our list.
And it’s not just a question of reaching a common list on paper, and we have to have some inspection arrangements to go visit those sites. If there are locations where we believe there are activities where they are saying they are not engaged in enrichment, then we would like to send experts there to make sure. This process can be achieved by Hanoi, but if they could agree at Hanoi that as a next step North Korea is going to stop producing fissile material, dismantle its facilities for reprocessing, then we would have to establish a process in which North Korea is going to hand over a list, and U.S. experts involved will establish the completeness and accuracy of that list. That would be a big step by North Korea because it would put a cap on the amount of bomb making material and its nuclear capability.
But they are not going to give that for free. They are going to insist on corresponding measures, and not little gestures. Steve Biegun was interesting on this point in the Stanford presentation.
He said that the United States cannot refuse to give North Korea anything until they agree to do everything. That was a positive admission that we cannot withhold benefits until the very end. We have to give reciprocal benefits at each step on the way. The question is: What is it that we are prepared to do? We know it North Korea wants relief from sanctions. This, for the United States, is the hardest thing to do because we need to retain leverage to get the North Koreans to make good on their promises and keep pushing them down the path toward denuclearization.
So we can’t be too generous too soon. That is why corresponding measures that don’t involve sanctions relief are the easiest. Political security declarations, maybe something like an end of war declaration or a willingness to begin negotiations on a peace regime, something like that [would be feasible]. A liaison office would be a valuable political step and humanitarian assistance is the easiest thing to do since it is a real justification to meet some of the dire needs of North Korea. I think it’s important that the corresponding steps by the United States and South Korea be reversible. Obviously the North Koreans want to [them to be] irreversible. But I think we have to be cautious because some of the steps they might take would be reversible. For example, right now there are severe limits on providing oil and petroleum products to North Korea. If they’re having a real difficult time economically, difficulty heating their homes and so forth, [we could have a] one-time exception to permit delivery. It would require the United Nations Security Council to agree to such a step, but I think there could be a consensus to do that, but not to eliminate the sanctions.
According to Blue House advisor Chung Eui-yong, the North Koreans are allergic to the idea of declaring their nuclear test sites: What do you make of this?
Steve Biegun was also interesting on this question of a declaration [of sites.] He said we don’t have to get a complete declaration from the North until the end of the process. We shouldn’t insist on a complete declaration at the beginning. That is precisely what United States [initially] proposed as a first step, that the North Koreans hand over a list, a complete declaration all the nuclear weapons, where they are, their missile capability, capability for producing nuclear weapons and fissile materials and missiles. I think that was an utterly unrealistic open proposal.
Even before the North has committed to get rid of this stuff, we are asking them to reveal everything. Now for me it is inconceivable that they would do that and Biegun’s statement at Stanford acknowledges that this is an unrealistic expectation. For me it is very important for the North Koreans to turn over accurate information about the capabilities but their declarations ought to be linked to the limitations they are prepared to agree to. For example, if they agree to end the production of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, then we should ask for declarations relevant to that limitation. So they will have to turn over a list of facilities anywhere in North Korea with their engaged activities but not include the numbers and locations of their nuclear weapons and their missiles or even how much fissile material they’ve already produced. They would not have to provide all that information at this stage, but this is necessary to have confidence in a suspension of fissile material production. You match up the scope of the declaration to the kind of limitation you’re asking for.
For the North Koreans, the priorities for sanctions relief for them are the inter-Korean economic cooperation projects at Mount Kumgang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Could these be considered by the U.S. government?
Those things are high in their list. Some of my South Korean friends are a little skeptical about [resuming them,] since once you turn these things on, it’s hard to turn them off. I think these projects are likely to be controversial but it seems to me those at least should be on the list to consider.
The U.S. government is very reluctant to issue those kinds of exceptions. The current position is no. But in U.S. domestic politics, it is easier to justify that our ally - the South Korean government - asked for these. These small steps could help inter-Korean relations and provide some continuing incentives for the North Koreans to denuclearize, so we support it. So while the U.S. government, I believe, is currently opposed to [sanctions relief for these projects,] if you look at the list from hardest to easiest [relief measures that can come out of the negotiations,] this is closer to the easier than to the hardest.
Can you tell us more about the importance of establishing a U.S. liaison office in North Korea?
There is value in having a liaison office for a number of things. One, it allows diplomatic contact. If Steve Biegun wants to arrange a meeting, he can send a message to his liaison office. Eventually there are going to be Americans participating in monitoring arrangements, and this can be facilitated by the liaison office. There is now a South-North office [in Kaesong] which has proven valuable in arranging bilateral interactions. So I think there would be value in [a U.S. liaison office in North Korea] as a step in the long process of normalization of bilateral relations. When Condoleezza Rice was Secretary of State, the United States proposed a liaison office but the North Koreans rejected the idea for number reasons.
For the North, I think they don’t like the Americans crawling around. They probably see a liaison office as a nest of spies. But you can set up a liaison office with a small number of personnel who North Koreans could have great confidence that they’re doing what they are supposed to do. The North Koreans would assign their own spies to monitor activities at liaison office. I can assure you Americans in the liaison office would not have very much privacy in Pyongyang. I don’t think North Koreans really have to worry about that aspect and hopefully they’ll see the benefits of having that channel of communication.
How do you think the political situation in the United States with the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives and the upcoming 2020 presidential elections figures in?
If you ask the editors of all major American newspapers to list the top 10 or 20 concerns of the U.S. public, the U.S.-North Korea negotiations would not appear. Washington is consumed with politics now; it’s consumed with the relationship between Democratic House of Representatives and the White House and with the 2020 presidential election.
North Korea negotiations could figure in the presidential election in some respect. I think President Trump is looking toward this re-election bid and he’ll want to show what he’s accomplished. And it’s clear in the area of foreign policy, this is one of the areas where he thinks he’s made great headway. I mean, he announced in the State of the Union - or maybe in a tweet - that if he hadn’t been elected president, the United States and North Korea would be engaged in a major war. I don’t believe that for one minute. I worked for Secretary Clinton.
If she were president now, I don’t think we’d be in a war. President Trump probably forgets that he personally contributed to tensions in 2017 with the little rocket man, fire and fury and so on. The president is proud of what’s been accomplished, and to his credit, I have to give him credit for moving this issue from a dead center. I think he has created the possibility of real movement and that’s good, because with North Korea, if you want to get anything done, you have to engage at the top level.
To his credit, President Trump recognized that, so yes he deserves some credit, and he will want to take credit for that in a run up to the presidential election. In that respect, North Korea could figure into presidential politics, but in terms of the preoccupations of the American public, it is not ranked very high.
There are concerns that President Trump may settle for a “small deal” with North Korea to prop up his success in the negotiations. Can you tell us more about that?
People remember that when President Trump returned to Washington to from Singapore, he declared that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. People had their in mind that President Trump is prepared to settle for very little and call it a major victory. So I think many in Washington are concerned by that, and many in South Korea and Japan are also concerned that the president will settle for an inadequate deal in order to have something to show for the presidential election. I hope that is not the case and I think that there are many in his administration who will be insisting that we not declare victory.
What advice would you give to the two leaders ahead of their negotiations?
Don’t settle for the atmospherics in Hanoi. Try to do something concrete, and if you can’t do anything that concretely limits North Korea’s nuclear program, then at least set up a diplomatic process. They can engage seriously over the next several months try to work out a road map for the process, which I think is essential.
I am confident that president’s advisors recognize the need to do something substantial. This cannot be a replay of the Singapore summit. The perception of another failed summit meeting would not be good for President Trump personally. He’s going to try to have an impressive result.
The North Koreans want to frontload sanctions relief and backload denuclearization steps: The Trump administration’s position is exactly the reverse. There has to be a negotiation there. The United States will want to withhold sanctions relief as much as possible, it will want to start with relief that is relatively uncontroversial in Washington, for example humanitarian sanctions relief related to inter-Korean relations. That will be the dynamic of the negotiation.
BY CHUN SU-JIN, SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]