North Korea has told the U.S. that Kim Jong Un is prepared to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, clearing the way for a summit meeting between the North Korean leader and President Donald Trump, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials didn’t say when and how that assurance was delivered, but U.S. and North Korean officials have been in communication.
“The U.S. has confirmed that Kim Jong Un is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a Trump administration official said on Sunday.
Hopes for a breakthrough that might end more than six decades of animosity on the Korean Peninsula were raised last month when South Korean national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told the White House that North Korea was prepared to engage in talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and would refrain from nuclear and missile tests.
For weeks, however, U.S. officials heard nothing from the North Koreans, raising concerns that the South Korean government, which is eager to reduce tensions on the peninsula, might have exaggerated Pyongyang’s willingness to put its nuclear arsenal on the negotiating table.
The North Korean assurance doesn’t mean that talks will necessarily succeed. Pyongyang has indicated that progress toward denuclearization should proceed in phases that are synchronized with diplomatic and economic concessions from the U.S. side.
It is possible that North Korea’s timetable for reducing and ultimately eliminating its arsenal might be far longer than the Trump administration would be prepared to accept. The North, for example, may define denuclearization as a long-term goal that would only be achieved if the U.S. eliminated the potential military threat to its regime by withdrawing forces from South Korea.
North Korea also might ask for more concessions than Washington is willing to provide. Working out verification arrangements to confirm that North Korea isn’t hiding weapons could be an additional stumbling block.
“Kim Jong Un being willing to discuss denuclearization is a good development given that in the past he has said that denuclearization was not possible,” said Joseph DeTrani, who served as the U.S. special envoy to the so-called Six Party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program from 2003 to 2006. The talks included the U.S., North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
“We now have to discuss whether his definition of denuclearization is similar to ours, which is complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all of their nuclear weapons and weapons programs,” said Mr. DeTrani.
North Korea has previously committed itself to denuclearization. A September 2005 statement issued during the Six Party talks noted that Pyongyang was “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” That statement also said that steps toward denuclearization would be taken “in a phased manner” and based on the reciprocal principle of ”action for action.”
Those negotiations eventually faltered, especially on the issue of verification.
With his latest assurance to the U.S., Mr. Kim has echoed the promise made by his father, Kim Jong Il, more than 12 years ago. Since then, North Korea has worked hard to expand its nuclear arsenal and develop a missile that can reach the continental U.S. Those actions, however, have also led to punishing sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, which U.S. officials believe are straining the North Korean economy.
“A clear expression that North Korea understands that denuclearization is a central part of the agenda for the United States is a necessary but not sufficient condition for making progress,” said Daniel Russel, vice president for security and diplomacy at the Asia Society and a former senior State Department official. “We should take the news of a commitment to denuclearization with a strong dose of caution.”
The White House has said that it hopes to hold the summit meeting in late May. It is not clear what steps might follow a summit. China has proposed that the Six Party talks be resumed, a move that would give Beijing more input into the negotiations. The U.S. hasn’t said whether it wants to revive that forum and such decisions might not be made until Mr. Trump meets with Mr. Kim and decides whether further diplomatic efforts might be fruitful.
A venue for the summit meeting has yet to announced. Mongolia’s former president has suggested his country could be a host, and its current president, through his chief of staff, has met with the top diplomats in Ulanbaatar from Washington and Pyongyang. Some U.S. officials say they are wary about holding the summit in South Korea, including Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, fearing that might invite the South Koreans to try to play too much of a mediator role.
North Korea’s interest in denuclearization hasn’t always been echoed in informal discussions between foreign experts and officials in Pyongyang. A group of academics from several Asian nations who recently returned from North Korea said they were told by their North Korean interlocutors that Pyongyang wanted to be treated as a “fully fledged strategic state” like the U.S. That appeared to be a reference to North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. The group left with the impression that North Korea would be reluctant to part with its nuclear arsenal.
Write to Michael R. Gordon at email@example.com and Jonathan Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org