The United States hopes to see a “freeze” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a starting point — not an endgame — for Pyongyang eventually relinquishing its arsenal, a State Department spokeswoman said Tuesday ahead of a fresh round of talks expected to kick off later this month.
The remarks come amid reports and speculation that the administration of President Donald Trump would be amenable to the idea of a freeze, which would run counter to the White House’s often stated goal of the North’s complete denuclearization.
“(A) freeze, you know, that would never be the resolution of a process. That would never be the end of a process,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said. “That would (be) something that we would certainly hope to see at the beginning. But I don’t think that the administration has ever characterized a freeze as being the end goal. That would be at the beginning of the process.”
Working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang were given a kick-start by Trump’s spur-of-the-moment meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, when the two leaders agreed to restart the process.
Ortagus said U.S special envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will be jointly leading the American team in the talks, were “moving forward with these negotiations.” She declined to give further details.
Pompeo has said the talks will likely happen “sometime in July … probably in the next two or three weeks.”
U.S. talks with the North over its nuclear weapons program had been on ice since the last Kim-Trump summit, in February in Hanoi, collapsed amid major differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by Washington.
However, the historic Kim-Trump meeting at the two Koreas’ border — which morphed from a mere handshake and greeting, as Trump initially predicted, into a more-than-50-minute talk — appeared to inject some much-needed momentum into the stalled talks.
Biegun is visiting Belgium and Germany this week to discuss the nuclear issue with European officials as well as his South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon, but Ortagus threw cold water on speculation that he could meet with North Korean officials, saying there was no such plan.
In an off-the-record briefing with reporters reported by news website Axios last week, Biegun said the administration wanted a “complete freeze” of North Korea’s nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs during negotiations, according to notes that sources provided to Axios. But that’s a long-standing request, and Biegun emphasized that would not be enough for the United States to provide Pyongyang with sanctions relief.
Biegun said that “in the abstract we have no interest in sanctions relief before denuclearization,” but there are “things we can do in the meantime,” such as providing humanitarian aid and upgrading diplomatic ties, if North Korea takes some steps toward denuclearization, according to the notes.
“Let’s say they give us 20 nuclear weapons,” the notes quoted Biegun as saying. “What can we get? I’m confident that I’d go to the secretary and he’d go to the president and he would consider that. What we want to do is take pieces off the board.”
The remarks appeared to signal that Trump was willing to be more flexible with North Korea than some hard-liners in his administration, though Biegun did insist that the goal of “complete denuclearization” had not been abandoned.
Those comments came in the wake of New York Times report that an idea had been taking shape among Trump officials that they could ditch that goal.
“The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for,” the Times reported.
Biegun, however, told the Times that this was “pure speculation” and that his team was “not preparing any new proposal currently,” while national security adviser John Bolton blasted the report, saying that neither he nor his staff had heard of such an idea and that the story was a “reprehensible attempt by someone to box in” the president.
The North Koreans have repeatedly urged “corresponding measures,” or a step-by-step approach, but the U.S. has said no steps can be taken until Pyongyang first gives up its nukes.
Biegun in March said 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, but ruled out an incremental approach.