Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

U.S. envoy to North Korea warns of 'Asia-Pacific nuclear weapons challenge' but softens demand for list of arsenal

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The top U.S. diplomat on North Korea has warned that not solving the issue of weapons of mass destruction on the Korean Peninsula today could result in “an Asia-Pacific nuclear weapons challenge tomorrow,” in a speech where he offered up the most detailed explanation to date of the Trump administration’s strategy to rid Pyongyang of its nuclear arsenal.

In his first public speech since taking the post of U.S. special representative for North Korea five months ago, Stephen Biegun also revealed during an address Thursday at Stanford University in California that North Korea has promised to destroy all of its facilities for enriching uranium and plutonium — not merely its Nyongbyon site as previously announced — in exchange for “corresponding measures” to be discussed at working-level talks next week.

Biegun said that in addition to earlier commitments to dismantle two key missile and nuclear sites, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had “also committed … to the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities. This complex of sites that extends beyond Nyongbyon represents the totality of North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs.”

Biegun said the commitment by the North was conveyed to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Pyongyang in October, and went much further than what Pompeo and the North have publicly said to date.

But Biegun also demanded that Pyongyang declare all of its nuclear and missile programs and warned that Washington had “contingencies” if the diplomatic process faltered.

He said Washington would need to have expert access and monitoring mechanisms of key nuclear and missile sites and “ultimately ensure removal or destruction of stockpiles of fissile material, weapons, missiles, launchers and other weapons of mass destruction.”

And in an apparent softening of U.S. demands for a declaration of the North’s nuclear arsenal and facilities as a first step toward denuclearization, Biegun said that “a complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean weapons of mass destruction missile programs” would be acceptable “at some point” in the process.

North Korea has long rejected a declaration of its weapons programs out of fear of handing over what would effectively be a list of capabilities and targets that could be attacked in any conflict.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, pointed out that even if the plutonium and uranium enrichment sites were destroyed, that would still leave Kim in possession of a nuclear deterrent.

“Importantly, destroying these sites doesn’t mean destroying existing stockpiles, weapons simulation systems and the covert refinement of launch, targeting and re-entry underground testing capabilities,” Nagy said. “Pyongyang needs a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for regime survival … making the ‘temporary’ destruction of facilities for enriching uranium and plutonium an easy compromise.”

Nagy said that even if these enrichment capabilities were destroyed, the gesture would be “meaningless” without accounting for and destroying some or all the North’s existing arsenal, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Biegun was clear that there remains “more work ahead of us than behind us,” but U.S. President Donald Trump remained more upbeat, repeating earlier in the day his mantra that “tremendous progress” on the issue had been made. Trump also touted the prospects for a second summit with Kim, saying that a time and location for the meeting had been agreed upon and would be announced “early next week,” possibly during his scheduled State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Pompeo said a day earlier that North Korea had agreed that the summit would be held at the end of February and that it would be “some place in Asia.” Numerous media reports have said the venue is expected to be in Vietnam and Trump on Thursday appeared to affirm those expectations.

“I think most of you know where the location is,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any great secret.”

Trump and Kim met in Singapore last June in the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, a meeting that resulted in a vaguely worded pledge “to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Pyongyang has yet to take concrete steps in that direction, observers have said, and nuclear talks had been effectively deadlocked in the months after the Singapore summit, leaving U.S. allies in the region fearful of a reversion to Trump’s “fire and fury” threats of 2017.

Biegun’s remarks noted the immediacy of making some progress, precisely because of those regional consequences if U.S. diplomacy fails.

“If we do not address the weapons of mass destruction issue on the Korean Peninsula today, we will have an Asia Pacific nuclear weapons challenge tomorrow, and we all need to keep that front of mind,” he said. ” We have to address this, and we have to address it in absolute terms as well as in relative terms.”

Asked if this statement sent a signal to U.S. allies that at least some officials in Washington are aware of concerns about a nuclear arms race in East Asia if the diplomatic push falters, Joshua Pollack, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation, agreed that Biegun appeared to be “hinting at the potential for a South Korea and a Japan with nuclear weapons of their own.”

“I sense this is not based on any specific developments, but is rather a way of injecting a sense of urgency into this undertaking, and offering a reason that the U.S. cannot compromise on its bottom line,” he said.

But ICU’s Nagy said that the destabilizing aspects of any possible nuclear arms race would likely not come from Japan, which is strongly disinclined to nuclear weapons development, or South Korea, which views Pyongyang’s arsenal as a strategic deterrent aimed at Washington, not Seoul.

Rather, he said Pyongyang retaining nuclear weapons would send “a strong signal to smaller states, both revisionist and those under enormous economic and political pressure like Taiwan and others, that acquiring nuclear weapons can guarantee sovereignty against a much larger state or could be used as a negotiating tool.”

U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks are scheduled to continue Sunday, when Biegun travels to South Korea to meet with his newly revealed North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol.

Pyongyang has repeatedly blasted Washington for doing little to reciprocate for the actions it says it has taken to dismantle and destroy some nuclear weapons facilities, demanding that punishing U.S.-led sanctions be lifted and urging a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

In his speech, Biegun said the United States had told North Korea it was prepared to pursue commitments made in Singapore “simultaneously and in parallel,” and that Washington is willing to discuss “many actions” to improve ties and entice Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Responding to questions after the speech, Biegun said it was correct that the United States would not completely lift sanctions until North Korean denuclearization was complete, but added: “We did not say we will not do anything until you do everything.”

He also said: “If we are doing the right thing on nuclear weapons, it makes it a lot more conceivable that there would be a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

Trump has publicly taken a hard line against easing sanctions, saying the measures will remain “in full force and effect” until the United States saw “very positive” results, leaving open the possibility of a deal.

But any deal would hinge on an accurate understanding of promises made by the North, and Middlebury’s Pollack expressed “grave doubts” about Biegun’s account of the pledges given by Kim concerning fissile material production sites. He specifically noted as an example that Biegun’s account differed from what was written in last September’s Pyongyang joint declaration at Kim’s third meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

That declaration said that the North had expressed a “willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities” in Nyongybon, “as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the” June U.S.-North Korea joint statement.

Pollack said he interpreted this as a conditional pledge to take steps “such as” dismantling the Nyongbyon facilities, not fissile material facilities in general, whose existence beyond Nyongbyon they have so far denied.

“Since the start of this process, there has been a persistent gap between what Kim Jong Un has said in public and what statements American officials have attributed to him,” Pollack said. “I could not ask for a clearer example. I am not inclined to take Biegun’s account of the October meetings on trust.”