U.S. sticks with its line on nukes

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U.S. sticks with its line on nukes

Washington’s goal in talks with North Korea remains its “final, fully verified denuclearization,” the U.S. State Department said Monday, denying speculation that the Trump administration was considering an incremental deal to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear activity.

A spokesman gave the response to a question from Yonhap on a New York Times report on Monday that said a splinter was widening within the administration over how to approach Pyongyang. The article said senior diplomatic officials are leaning towards an incremental approach as negotiations between the two countries resume.

The State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Stephen Biegun, also denied the report, calling it “pure speculation.”

According to the piece, U.S. officials are discussing a plan that could involve North Korea first closing down nuclear facilities capable of producing fissile material, and in return the United States could provide sanctions relief.

This, in effect, would resemble the proposal that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un brought to his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, last February. Kim offered to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for relief from five sets of economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Under this possible deal for Yongbyon - or a larger one reportedly being considered by U.S. officials that would freeze activity at the nearby Kangson uranium facility as well - the North would no longer produce additional nuclear material, but none of its existing nuclear weapons or stockpiles would be touched. While this would imply de facto acceptance of North Korea’s status as a nuclear state, it could serve as an initial step toward full denuclearization in the future, the report said.

In their abrupt meeting at the border village of Panmunjom on Sunday, Trump had a closed-door discussion with Kim for just over 50 minutes in which they may have talked of such possibilities, giving the North a reason to resume negotiations after a months-long stalemate. After the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, Pyongyang publicly announced it would only return to the table if the United States presented “a new calculus.”

Monday’s New York Times report prompted an angry response from National Security Advisor John Bolton, the leading hawk in the Trump administration, who frequently raised North Korea’s ire due to his push for complete denuclearization as a condition for any economic relief.

Saying he nor any other staff member of Trump’s national security council had heard of talks of a freeze option, Bolton on Twitter called the article a “reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the president.”

Yet Bolton’s conspicuous absence from Sunday’s surprise meeting in Panmunjom, which he missed due to a scheduled trip to Mongolia, suggested hawks’ influence in formulating White House foreign policy may be on the decline, particularly amid the growing political pressure Trump faces to show what he has achieved with the North after over a year of engagement.

On Monday Trump wrote on Twitter about his satisfaction over his latest meeting with Kim over the weekend, and said that he looked forward to seeing him again very soon.

“In the meantime, our teams will be meeting to work on some solutions to very long term and persistent problems,” he wrote. “No rush, but I am sure we will ultimately get there!”

One step Washington could consider at this point in time is granting permission to limited economic projects between South and North Korea, the report said, given that such initiatives are a key part of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s policies and one of the tenets of his agreement with Kim at their first summit in April last year.

During their visit to the demilitarized zone, Moon told Trump about the Kaesong Industrial Complex, one of the linchpins of inter-Korean economic exchanges, and explained its role in fostering reconciliation and promoting security on the border. Trump responded that he was in “no rush” in terms of the sanctions question, but added he hoped they could be lifted.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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