With the second North Korea-U.S. summit just a week away, the focus of that meeting has shifted from demands that Pyongyang immediately relinquish its nukes to whether the two parties have the wherewithal to lay the groundwork for such an ambitious goal in the long term, interviews with leading U.S. experts and statements by top officials from both countries have shown.
Ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28, more than eight months after their landmark summit in Singapore, diplomats from both sides were set to begin a second round of talks this week to reach an agreement.
Until recently, the two sides had made little progress in narrowing the glaring gaps in their interpretations of the vaguely worded document that emerged from the Singapore meeting. In that declaration, the U.S. committed to security guarantees for the Kim regime and the North pledged “to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
But in recent weeks there have been growing signs that the Trump administration and the Kim regime can find middle ground — including hints that both sides are willing to take a fresh look at their relationship — in what would be an extended denuclearization process.
“I believe it is safe to say that the Trump administration is in hypothesis-testing mode, which is the right way to go about it,” said Philip Yun, executive director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco and a member of the U.S. government working group that managed American policy and negotiations with North Korea under then-President Bill Clinton.
“The administration is hopeful that … Kim Jong Un’s desire to have a new relationship is genuine, but the negotiations are now all about testing that hypothesis in a credible way,” Yun said.
A shift in rhetoric
While Trump has long spoken glowingly of his personal ties to Kim, a flurry of recent statements and remarks by U.S. top officials playing up the prospects of peace — including from the president himself — are more indicative of the White House’s shift from its insistence on a maximalist outcome — “the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea” first and foremost — to a more flexible approach.
This shift was on full display Tuesday, when Trump said he is “in no rush” and has no pressing time schedule for Pyongyang to ultimately denuclearize, “as long as there is no testing” of nuclear bombs or missiles.
Trump has also appeared to relish taking up the mantle of peacemaker — a far cry from his “fire and fury” rhetoric of 2017, speaking of “a bold new diplomacy” and a “historic push for peace on the Korean Peninsula” during his Feb. 5 State of the Union address. That speech was followed days later by a tweet voicing anticipation of “advancing the cause of peace.”
Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea now with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, also pointed to public statements of support for the diplomatic push by the current and former commanders of U.S. forces in South Korea. That support comes even as Trump has suspended joint military exercises and continues to weigh halting others.
“Former USFK commander Vincent Brooks and the current USFK commander Robert Abrams have both emphasized that while the suspension of major joint military exercises has caused some degradation to military readiness, this risk is worth taking if it creates an opportunity for the diplomatic process to advance,” Aum said.
In particular, Aum noted that Brooks has continued to make similar remarks even after he left his post, “which suggests that it’s his sincere personal position rather than a cautious toeing of the administration line.”
However, it was U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun who appeared to set the tone for the administration’s evolving stance with a Jan. 31 speech at Stanford University in California.
In it, Biegun said the U.S. is “prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust … and advance further progress in parallel on the Singapore summit objectives of transforming relations, establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula and complete denuclearization.”
But Biegun’s most important point, which came during questioning after the speech, may have been the revelation of a major shift in the U.S. negotiating position — that Washington will “engage diplomatically with North Korea to see if we can change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own.”
This shift was highlighted Tuesday by State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Palladino, who spoke of “a top-down approach” to the Hanoi summit “that, if successful, could fundamentally transform relations.”
A ‘new’ era of relations
According to Yun, the top U.S. envoy’s speech was rich in symbolism and had a specific audience.
“I believe that Steve Biegun was very conscious of where he made his first public speech,” he said. “If you read the speech, it was as much for the North Koreans as it was for the U.S. audience.”
Yun, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1999 with a delegation led by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, cited the opening, which focused on “the notion that North Korea and the U.S. both bear responsibility for the state of past relations,” and noted the setting, Stanford — the first stop North Korean then-Vice Marshall Jo Myong Rok made during his historic trip to Washington in 2000, when relations were also taking a dramatic turn for the better.
Taken together, these clues appear to suggest that the White House’s stance may have shifted to accepting that peace and that a new relationship could underpin any real denuclearization agreement.
“I do think the administration, if we are to believe Biegun’s assertion that the U.S. is committed to ‘simultaneous’ and ‘parallel’ discussions on denuclearization and peace, has offered a radical shift in how it has approached North Korea over the last 30 years,” said Aum.
For their part, the North Koreans have also maintained that they are sincere in their intent to forge a “new” era of relations with the U.S. — so long as any agreement to do so is equitable in their minds.
In his annual New Year’s address, Kim hailed the Singapore summit, which he said “brought about a dramatic turn” in ties, and voiced hope that improved relations “will bear good fruit this year.” He also urged “corresponding practical actions” by the U.S. in response to earlier moves by the North, including the destruction of its main nuclear test site and a de facto moratorium on missile and atomic tests. Doing so, he said, could see “more definite and epochal measures” from Pyongyang.
Will history repeat itself?
Critics, however, have alluded to Pyongyang’s long history repeating itself, pointing to cycles of inertia followed by rays of hope and then disappointment — often after it welched on an agreement.
Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations and North Korea expert at the Seoul campus of Troy University, said that while a shift in North Korean policy would be welcomed, “any change in trajectory that would include denuclearization would require a revolutionary change in the party’s ideology and identity, and the leadership’s world view.
“Is that impossible? No, but it’s very unlikely under the current situation,” he said, adding that even “if that were to occur, there would be several indications, and we would know almost immediately.”
Others, meanwhile, have warned of Trump being played by Kim.
“Trump has gone from ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ to ‘Well, maybe,'” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the U.S. “Why? Because Kim played on his impulse to make history and is now trapped in a labyrinthine process of negotiations during which Kim buys more time and money to perfect his nuclear posture.
“Trump can’t admit he was duped, so the charade must go on,” he said.
But the Ploughshares Fund’s Yun, while retaining a degree of skepticism, said it is noteworthy that Kim has directly expressed his views. This fact, he said, means the U.S. has a chance to see if he will make good on his offer.
“There is a sense that Kim is indeed talking — underscore talking — about a fundamentally different relationship with the U.S.,” Yun said. “This is huge, because Kim is in reality the only person who matters in North Korea on these issues; so having an opportunity to explore his intent directly and to construct a series of ‘tests’ to reconfirm that intent is a big deal. No one knows what North Korea’s intent truly is, but now we can find out.”
Lowering the temperature
Although Kim has also threatened “a new way” of striking back if the U.S. backslides on what he views as promises made in Singapore, some experts say he has indeed made good — at least somewhat — on what was agreed to in June.
“Contrary to what we have heard in the media, North Korea has actually halted and rolled back some nuclear activities, with the most important being the end of nuclear and missile testing — which, in turn, has significant consequences,” Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico who is now at Stanford, said in an interview earlier this month.
Hecker, who has visited the North multiple times and made international headlines after his last trip in November 2010, when he announced that the country had built a modern uranium enrichment facility, prescribed in May a decadelong framework for denuclearization based around a “halt, roll back and eliminate” process. That framework was updated this month.
The update noted that “although North Korea continued to produce fissile materials with which it could build more bombs, it took demonstrable steps to lower the threat it poses,” Hecker told The Japan Times.
“It is generally not recognized that Kim Jong Un said he has ‘ended’ nuclear and long-range missile testing rather than just observing a moratorium,” Hecker said. “A complete end to such testing is a very big deal. … It more than offsets the continued fissile materials production.”
He said that, at this point in North Korea’s missile program, some key weapons — including the intercontinental ballistic missiles that could target the U.S. and the shorter-range solid-fueled and submarine-launched weapons that could hit Japan — remain “very much in the developmental stage.”
“They require testing to put into service,” he said. “Likewise, more nuclear tests would be required, in my opinion, to field a hydrogen bomb and to make nuclear warheads small and light enough, and robust to survive ICBM delivery.”
Peace declaration in the cards
With U.S. and North Korean officials meeting in Asia this week, the negotiations are expected to test just how much each side is willing to bend — and these signals point to a willingness by both, experts believe.
But the ball is in Trump’s court as to whether he will agree to follow through on trust-building measures that could lay the foundation for a long-term denuclearization road map.
“The central question moving forward isn’t whether Kim is willing to give up his nuclear weapons; rather it’s whether the United States and North Korea can transform their relationship to a point where Kim and his elites begin to believe their regime can survive without nuclear weapons,” David Kim, a former State Department nonproliferation and East Asia desk official, wrote in an essay on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website last week.
Kim told The Japan Times that a step in this direction could be made by the U.S. offering up a so-called peace declaration. Unlike a formal peace treaty, an end-of-war declaration is a legally nonbinding document and would not involve hard-fought negotiations and would represent a symbolic end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which was halted only with an armistice.
That declaration could serve as a preliminary security guarantee, or litmus test, to see how serious the North is about denuclearizing.
“It would be a symbolic commitment to the world that the U.S. and North Korea are interested in fundamentally transforming their relationship, which is the first and most important clause in the Singapore joint statement,” Kim said.
“You can’t get to real denuclearization unless Kim can assure his elites at home that a threat no longer exists,” he added. “I think a peace declaration can help shift the threat narrative within the regime. As a confidence-building measure, a declaration — in exchange for concrete measures toward denuclearization — can set the mechanism in place for a formal peace treaty.”
However, Tuft’s Lee cautioned that while “‘peace’ sounds hypnotically alluring … history is full of fake peace deals that only brought war.”
Actual peace, he said, has been maintained on the Korean Peninsula since 1953 by virtue of mutual deterrence.
“Any ‘peace agreement’ will have consequences, as North Korea demands, in the name of furthering peace and reconciliation,” he said.
These would likely include the dismantlement of the U.N. Command, U.S. Forces Korea, U.S. Forces Japan and the isolation of Seoul, Lee added.
“No genuine ‘peace’ or ‘denuclearization’ can be achieved with a North Korea that is not open and free,” he said.
A golden opportunity?
Despite these criticisms, there are increasing signs that Washington has already put such a declaration on the negotiating table, including Biegun’s remarks that Trump “is convinced that it’s time to move past 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula” and that “there is no reason for this conflict to persist any longer.”
This message has apparently been conveyed to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said last week that the two sides have “had a lot of talks about” a peace declaration and security mechanisms, and that those conversations would continue in this week’s talks, as well as between Kim and Trump in Hanoi.
Observers say that a declaration, perhaps as part of a package of inducements and concessions from both sides, could give negotiators fresh momentum and a new avenue to pursue peace and, ultimately, denuclearization on the peninsula.
North Korea watchers “have been arguing among themselves” for nearly 30 years “what North Korea’s intent is,” Yun said.
“Now, with direct talks with Kim, we finally have the chance to find out,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity, not to be wasted; or left to assumptions, which could very well be outdated.”