SEOUL — The two former top U.S. negotiators in talks that melted down with North Korea in 2009 have some sobering advice for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ahead of his second summit with President Trump: Don’t blow this special chance, stop foot-dragging, get specific about the denuclearization steps you’re actually going to take, and be ready to clarify what you really want in exchange for abandoning your nukes.
That’s the message former Ambassadors Christopher R. Hill and Joseph DeTrani offered in successive speeches at a conference this weekend in South Korea’s capital, where the high stakes of the Trump-Kim summit slated for Vietnam at the end of the month took center stage.
“It is very unusual for any country to have two summits with the American president,” said Mr. Hill, who was the lead U.S. diplomat in multiparty talks with Pyongyang during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
“As they come to Vietnam, it’s time to get down to work,” said Mr. Hill. “I would suggest that North Korea start talking about the list of what their nuclear programs are. … [and] what order they would like to see these nuclear programs taken away.”
Mr. DeTrani, a former CIA official who served as the State Department’s special envoy for North Korea talks before their collapse nearly a decade ago, offered a similar take, suggesting a lack of specific movement on denuclearization during the months since Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim met in June in Singapore has been frustrating.
“There’s going to have to be some heavy lifting. There’s going to have to be some details put on the table, because I don’t think anyone is going to be patient and say, ‘Let’s wait another six months and wait for another heads-of-state meeting,’” he said. “There needs to be some movement and the movement has to be on the core issue, which is complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons facilities, which include plutonium and highly enriched uranium.”
The straight-ahead messaging from two former officials who know what it’s like to negotiate with the North Koreans comes as speculation and momentum mount ahead of the summit in Hanoi.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun — the working-level negotiator in the role Mr. DeTrani held years ago — spent much of last week on a rare visit to Pyongyang in talks with his North Korean counterpart, preparing for the summit.
“Our discussions were productive,” Mr. Biegun said during a subsequent meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in Seoul, according to The Associated Press.
While he said there is “hard work to do” before Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim meet, other U.S. officials said Mr. Biegun is slated to hold another working-level round with the North Koreans before the summit.
But regional experts warn that time is increasingly short for serious pre-negotiations to unfold, and wariness has grown that Mr. Kim aims to strike a deal directly with Mr. Trump for interim sanctions relief in exchange for something far less than a total dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.
Mr. Biegun and other top Trump advisers have said they are committed to keeping sanctions pressure on North Korea until it irreversibly denuclearizes, but private analysts have expressed concern the president may concede to some form of relief if Mr. Kim agrees to abandon ballistic missiles that pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.
The Korea Times, an English-language newspaper in Seoul, reported Saturday that Mr. Biegun and a team he brought to Pyongyang last week focused their efforts on pushing for the dismantlement of the North’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — something U.S. intelligence has long expressed concern about, given the prospect such missiles could be mounted with nuclear warheads capable of targeting U.S. cities.
While the report claimed that the U.S. officials also pushed for the complete closure of the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, The Korea Times cited an unnamed source as saying that “among Washington’s demands was for Pyongyang to list its ICBM developers.”
That the missile program may be a focus of working-level talks suggests that Mr. Biegun’s team could be seeking a small breakthrough to be announced when Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim meet. But it’s unclear whether the North Koreans will be willing to commit to anything verifiable, particularly with regard to any major denuclearization steps ultimately being sought by Washington.
‘It’s not one-sided’
Mr. Hill said Saturday that without specific steps and a clear timeline, talk of total denuclearization is just talk.
“For the North Koreans to talk about denuclearization without a time frame is almost, to me, talking about it in a kind of biblical sense — that is, at the end of the world they’ll consider denuclearization,” he said. “That’s not going to work for any American president.”
“It’s important in talking about denuclearization they begin to show some denuclearization,” added Mr. Hill, who was U.S. ambassador to South Korea before serving as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Bush and Obama years.
He and Mr. DeTrani spoke alongside other former U.S. officials and political leaders, as well as several leading South Korean experts on North Korea at a conference hosted by The Washington Times and Segye Ilbo, a Seoul-based newspaper. The event was attended by a range of high-level South Korean officials, including Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon.
Mr. DeTrani said the North Koreans need to be prepared to present a list of all of their “facilities, nuclear weapons [and] the personnel who’ve worked on these issues.” This is not to mention the establishment of “a verification regime that’s very comprehensive, that permits nuclear monitors to visit non-declared, suspect nuclear sites,” he said, suggesting that the likelihood is high for an escalation of U.S.-North Korea tensions without a breakthrough at the summit.
That could mean a swift return to the tension that gripped both sides after Pyongyang hurled rhetorical threats at the U.S. and South Korea in 2017 and carried out its sixth nuclear bomb test nuclear test — a period that also saw Mr. Trump threaten to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if it did not halt its provocations.
“I can assure you, if we don’t succeed now at this important inflection point, the possibility of going back to maximum pressure and ‘fire and fury’ is real and we know the potential consequences of going back to that policy,” Mr. DeTrani said.
At the same time, he said, the U.S. has to be prepared to get serious about what concessions it is willing to make if Mr. Kim comes through with verifiable denuclearization steps.
“It’s not one-sided,” Mr. DeTrani said. “For the North Koreans to denuclearize in a comprehensive way, that’s a very major strategic decision on their part. … We have to be prepared to put things on the table and I think what we’re going to see with President Donald Trump is we are prepared to have actions for actions. We will reciprocate.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going forgo sanctions,” he said. “[But] there are many other things that can be done.”
On the immediate front, the U.S. could consider opening a liaison office in Pyongyang, agreeing to a formal declaration ending the Korean War — something North Korea has been seeking for some time — and perhaps inking a formal “non-aggression” pact to be signed by Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, Mr. DeTrani said.
“I would suggest, if I were the North Koreans and if I were concerned about sanctions, I’d be talking about what are the sanctions that the U.S. might be prepared to relax in the context of denuclearization,” he said.
Meanwhile, South Korea and the U.S. struck a new deal Sunday that increases Seoul’s contribution for the cost of the American military presence on its soil, overcoming previous failed negotiations that caused worries about their decades-long alliance, The Associated Press reported.
South Korea last year provided about $830 million, covering roughly 40 percent of the cost of the deployment of 28,500 U.S. soldiers whose presence is meant to deter aggression from North Korea. Mr. Trump has pushed for South Korea to pay more.
On Sunday, chief negotiators from the two countries signed a new cost-sharing plan, which requires South Korea to pay about $924 million in 2019, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
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