Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Go big or go home? Top U.S. envoy for North Korea nuclear talks rules out piecemeal approach

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korean denuclearization negotiations is becoming increasingly simple to digest: Go big or go home.

That was the message U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun delivered Monday in a speech at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference.

In a livestreamed keynote address before scores of security experts and scholars, the top U.S. envoy in charge of negotiations with Pyongyang said that Washington will not settle for step-by-step disarmament and insisted that North Korea relinquish not only its nuclear arsenal but all of its weapons of mass destruction.

“We are not going to do denuclearization incrementally,” Biegun said. “The president has been clear on that.”

Indeed, the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, held late last month in Hanoi, collapsed after Trump rejected an apparently step-by-step proposal by Kim to dismantle some facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear site in exchange for lifting most of the economic sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council since March 2016.

The North Koreans have repeatedly urged corresponding measures, but the U.S. has said no steps can be taken until Pyongyang first gives up its nukes.

While Biegun said Monday that there is room for “confidence-building” measures, such as a proposed establishment of a U.S. diplomatic liaison office in North Korea, to help advance the denuclearization process, his comments marked a stark shift from a speech in late January in which he effectively said the administration was open to a step-by-step approach.

“From our side, we are prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust between our two countries 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,” he said at the time. Washington could “engage diplomatically with North Korea to see if we can change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own.”

But any allusions to changes in trajectory had disappeared by Monday.

Rather, the U.S. stance appeared to have hardened, with the top envoy clearly stating that the North relinquishing its chemical and biological weapons programs in addition to its nuclear weapons were part and parcel of its demands.

Although the White House has sporadically mentioned chemical and biological weapons as part of its denuclearization push, it has not been clear that they were part of the negotiations.

Biegun, however, denied these were new elements in the talks.

He said that since he became envoy, “the effort to bring a more permanent peace to the Korean Peninsula has involved the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction.” The issue is “one we’ve discussed with the North Koreans. It’s not new.”

Biegun added that “it would hardly make sense to remove the threat of nuclear weapons from North Korea and endorse the continued presence of chemical and biological weapons. It would be unacceptable to us, it would be unacceptable to North Korea’s neighbors, including Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.

Tokyo has long urged the Trump administration to press the North Koreans to include the removal of all weapons of mass destruction in its nuclear negotiations, as the North is believed to possess the ability to strike Japan using ballistic missiles tipped with deadly chemical weapons.

On Tuesday, Japan welcomed Biegun’s remarks on WMDs and ruling out a step-by-step approach to negotiations, with a Defense Ministry spokesman Tuesday saying that they aligned with Tokyo’s long-held stance on the issue.

“We support President Trump’s decision to urge North Korea to take concrete steps toward denuclearization through continuing constructive discussion and not making easy compromises, all as part of the United States’ strong commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” the spokesman said, adding that Tokyo would continue to call for the complete, verifiable and irreversible destruction of all weapons of mass destruction and ranges of ballistic missiles held by the North.

As for Biegun’s apparent reversal, the impetus was not known, though some observers have pointed to hawkish U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who has openly championed a harder-line stance, including during a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

“The president … is determined to avoid the mistakes prior presidents have made, and one of those mistakes is falling for the North Korean action-for-action ploy,” Bolton said in the interview. But asked about a possible divide within the administration over its approach to the issue, Biegun on Monday brushed away concerns, saying there is “complete unity” within the U.S. government.

“The missing variable” in making a deal, he said, is the North’s unwillingness to offer complete, verifiable denuclearization. Still, he was ambiguous as to whether that meant the North must first give up all of its weapons of mass destruction or agree to a goal where that is the endgame.

Contrary to taking a tougher stance, Richard Johnson, a nuclear fuel expert at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said Biegun could be signaling to the North that a clear commitment to a goal of denuclearization would have to come before negotiating any practical, phased steps for achieving that.

This is “a way of saying both ‘incremental’ and ‘not incremental’ in the same breath,” he wrote Monday on Twitter.

Euan Graham, executive director of the Asia department at La Trobe University in Australia, said the remarks by Biegun could be intended to inject fresh momentum into the talks after Hanoi.

“It also sounds to me like Biegun is asking Pyongyang for a public declaration of intent to denuclearize — and to rid itself of other WMD — to jump-start a negotiation that is currently stalled, and in danger of slippage,” said Graham, a North Korea expert.

He said that while that kind of all-or-nothing approach was unlikely to work with North Korea, the bigger question is whether Pyongyang is willing to offer up something “bolder than what was on offer at Hanoi.”

“Biegun has to demonstrate something from the North Koreans that satisfies the ‘go big or go home’ approach favored by Trump, and presumably Bolton,” he said.

And despite recent activity at a North Korean missile research facility and a rocket site that may indicate preparations for a launch, the two sides have been positive on continuing their negotiations.

“Diplomacy is still very much alive,” Biegun said Monday, adding that “the door remains open”

Though he offered no specifics on when new talks might be held and did not say whether any talks had taken place since the summit, he said it was Washington’s “expectation that we will be able to continue our close engagement.”

Trump has said he remains open to more talks with Kim, and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson told the same Washington conference that she thought there would be another summit.

Asked if there would be a third meeting, she said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump had “been very clear that they remain open to the dialogue. They haven’t got a date on the calendar but our teams continue to work towards that.”

Still, despite the apparent amicable split in Hanoi and signaling from both sides, the negotiations, especially at the highest-level, do have an expiration date.

“My gut feeling is that the U.S. and North Korea will still have one more attempt around the table under this administration,” said Graham.

After that, though, the fate of the nuclear negotiations is anyone’s guess.

Staff writer Sakura Murakami contributed to this report.

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