Asia Pacific / Politics

Deadlocked North Korean nuclear talks likely to be at top of Trump's mind after flurry of seemingly tantalizing proposals

Pyongyang agrees to 'permanently' scrap missile site under watch of foreign inspectors; vows to shutter main nuclear facility — if U.S. takes reciprocal measures

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Deadlocked denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington are expected to again weigh heavily on U.S. President Donald Trump’s mind after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered up a flurry of seemingly tantalizing proposals Wednesday.

The North agreed to “permanently” decommission a key missile facility under the watch of “experts from relevant countries” and said it is willing to close its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex if the United States takes commensurate actions, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said after a summit in Pyongyang with North leader Kim Jong Un.

At a news conference after the summit talks, the pair said they had agreed to turn the Korean Peninsula into a “land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats” and take “prompt steps” toward that goal.

In another striking development that would have been unthinkable just a year ago, Kim also said he will travel to Seoul in the near future — possibly before the year’s end — in what would be the first-ever visit to the South’s capital by a North Korean leader.

In the so-called Joint Pyongyang Declaration, released later by South Korea’s presidential Blue House, the North agreed to shut down its Tongchang-ri missile test facility and launchpad. It also said it was open to taking steps toward closing its Nyongbyon facility — but this appeared to hinge on U.S. concessions it expected in return.

“The North expressed its willingness to continue taking additional steps, such as the permanent shutdown of the Nyongbyon nuclear facility, should the United States take corresponding measures under the spirit of the June 12 North Korea-U.S. joint statement,” the declaration said in reference to an agreement reached by Trump and Kim at their summit in June.

According to international experts, Nyongbyon houses 5-megawatt reactors, centrifuges, fissile materials such as uranium and plutonium for bombs, and other facilities and equipment.

It was not clear what measures the North might be expecting, but Pyongyang has urged Washington to issue a declaration ending the 1950-53 Korean War, a step ahead of a formal peace treaty. Fighting in the conflict was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.

In a sign that Trump could be leaning toward taking simultaneous steps in response, the U.S. leader characterized Wednesday’s announcements as “very exciting.”

“Kim Jong Un has agreed to allow Nuclear inspections, subject to final negotiations, and to permanently dismantle a test site and launch pad in the presence of international experts. In the meantime there will be no Rocket or Nuclear testing,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Moon is expected to brief Trump on the summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Monday.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan was closely cooperating with the United States and South Korea.

Asked if Moon had raised the possibility at the summit of Kim meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Suga said Tokyo and Seoul were exchanging information but did not provide further details.

Beyond the nuclear issue, defense chiefs from the two Koreas also signed a joint statement agreeing to establish buffer zones along their land and sea borders to reduce military tensions and prevent accidental clashes. They also agreed to withdraw 11 guard posts from the Demilitarized Zone by December and to establish a no-fly zone for planes, helicopters and drones above the military demarcation line that bisects the two Koreas.

Moon also appeared to be making good on his proposals to help build up the North’s infrastructure and open cross-border rail links, saying that a groundbreaking ceremony to link railways on the east and west coasts will take place this year.

Moon and Kim also agreed to work to reopen two suspended cross-border projects — Mount Kumgang on the North’s east coast and the shuttered Kaesong industrial park — “when the right conditions are satisfied,” a precondition apparently linking progress with the U.S. denuclearization talks.

Later Wednesday, Moon’s spokesman announced that the South Korean president and Kim planned to visit Mount Paektu, a volcano sacred to the North, early Thursday, the last day of Moon’s visit.

Washington’s denuclearization talks with Pyongyang have hit a wall in the more than three months since Trump’s landmark June summit in Singapore with Kim. That impasse may revolve around the two parties’ differing understandings of what was agreed to there.

Kim agreed to a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while Trump committed to “provide security guarantees” to the regime.

At the end of that summit, Trump said he was halting joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea — a major irritant to the North, which views them as a rehearsal for invasion.

But the talks have remained deadlocked since then, with Kim touting what the North has said are steps toward denuclearization and the White House repeatedly stressing that Pyongyang must first take verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear arsenal before any further concessions.

Earlier this year, the North said it had halted nuclear and missile tests, but the isolated country did not allow international inspections to verify the destruction of its only known nuclear test site in May, prompting criticism that the move could be easily reversed.

It also reportedly began dismantling the Tongchang-ri site, also known as Sohae — an action that Trump said Kim had promised at the Singapore summit.

As a next step, the North will allow experts from “relevant countries” to watch the closure of the Tongchang-ri site, according to Moon. He did not reveal which countries this might include.

The facilities at Tongchang-ri have served as a key test center for engines designed to power intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike as far away as the U.S.

However, Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank in Canberra, said this and other offers were more style than substance.

“If he dismantles it, even with inspectors present, what’s to stop him re-assembling it later? Also, does he need it, if he has perfected road-mobile missiles on trailer-erector launchers (TELs)? This could be a showy concession that actually doesn’t mean that much,” Davis wrote in an email.

What is more, although the offers appeared tantalizing on the surface, they fell short of major steps reportedly sought by the U.S., including a list from Pyongyang of its nuclear facilities and arsenal, as well as a concrete timeline or agreement to allow international inspectors in to assess denuclearization progress.

But the announcements at the summit could still be enough to convince Trump of the need for a second meeting with Kim, at which the North Korean leader could further press his demands. The White House said last week that Kim had requested another meeting with Trump and that preparations were already underway.

“North Korea is a master of initiatives that force the United States to choose between engaging on Pyongyang’s terms or looking like it is acting in bad faith,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues

“That makes the ‘corresponding measures’ line key. This announcement could give North Korea a lot of leverage to press for its preferred reciprocal measures.”

U.S. elections in November could also give Trump an extra nudge toward agreeing to another meeting if he believes it could help his fellow Republicans.

“President Trump will go for anything that reinforces his image as a great deal-maker, especially ahead of the U.S. midterm elections,” Oba said. “North Korea knows this and it will undoubtedly plan its next moves accordingly so that he has a chance to claim victory by agreeing to what they want.”

Second meeting or not, Trump will also likely face pressure not to play into Kim’s hands from administration officials who believe Kim is not serious about relinquishing his nuclear weapons.

These officials, including defense chief Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, are likely to continue to insist on a full accounting of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons stockpiles, missile systems and nuclear facilities, and an agreement to allow international inspections of these systems and facilities,

“That to me is a more meaningful step for the DPRK to make if they really were serious about denuclearization,” said Davis, the defense analyst, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Ultimately, Davis said he believes the North plans to hang on to its nukes and its most capable missile systems.

“It will put some older capabilities on the table, but Kim will hang on to his most potent capabilities, even if a peace deal is signed,” he said.

He said the North could be following Pakistan’s approach in an attempt to gain a begrudging acceptance of its nuclear program — “having nukes but keeping it low-key.”

“That may be what Kim is aiming for, along with a peace deal that would see U.S. forces on the peninsula downscaled and eventually withdrawn, sanctions ended (or ineffective) and U.S. extended nuclear deterrence security guarantees to South Korea and Japan ended.”