McLARTY KOREA UPDATE: Toward a second US-DPRK summit
January 25, 2019
- Following a meeting between President Trump and North Korea’s lead negotiator January 18, the White House announced a second US-DPRK summit would be held in late February, at a date and place to be announced later. The most likely venue is reported to be
- US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun subsequently flew to Stockholm for his first meeting with a North Korean counterpart since his appointment in August 2018. This offered an opportunity for senior officials to lay the groundwork for a potential breakthrough in denuclearization talks, which has shown little progress since the June 12 Singapore summit.
- Close coordination with allies, Japan and South Korea, on North Korea continues as the administration prepares for a second summit. Complicating the US-ROK alliance relationship, however, are defense burden sharing talks that are becoming highly acrimonious.
- While sharp differences over the definition of denuclearization and sanctions persist, the absence of North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile tests for more than a year creates an atmosphere in which the summit could be more successful than the last, provided the two sides prepare well.
Preparations for a Second Summit
The past week featured a series of high- and working-level meetings in Washington and Stockholm in preparation for a second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two leaders held a first ever summit between a sitting American president and a leader of North Korea on June 12 in Singapore, where they signed a symbolically important yet vague joint statement to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Following Trump’s hour and half meeting with North Korea’s lead negotiator Kim Yong Chol on January 18, the White House announced a second US-DPRK summit would be held in late February at a location to be announced at a later date. The most likely venue is reported to be Vietnam. Secretary of State Pompeo and Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun also met with Kim Yong Chol, after which Biegun traveled to Sweden January 19-22 for follow-on negotiations – and a first meeting — with a North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui. (During the White House meeting, North Korea introduced a new interlocutor for talks with the US, leaving unclear as to whether Choe will still be involved in the negotiations.) The beginning of talks between senior negotiators is a promising development given the North Koreans’ repeated refusal to engage in senior official-level discussions with Biegun. Since Singapore, there have been frequent public statements and a flurry of letters between the two leaders but little direct negotiation.
The most important issue of denuclearization remains unresolved. Little progress was made in talks since the Singapore summit as differences over the definition of denuclearization and sanctions have persisted. After the White House meeting on January 18, Press Secretary Sanders emphasized that the administration would “continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see full and verified denuclearization.” Pyongyang, however, has insisted on economic sanctions relief and maintained it would not give up its “nuclear deterrence” until the US completely removes its nuclear threat from the peninsula and surrounding areas. (Since 1992, the US has not had nuclear weapons in South Korea, but strategic assets remain in the broader Pacific region.) US negotiators recognize that a demand for a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is unlikely to be accepted by the North at this early stage.
Close coordination with allies, Japan and South Korea, continues as the administration prepares for a second summit with Pyongyang. Secretary Pompeo on January 20 held phone calls with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts regarding North Korea. The State Department stated Pompeo discussed the next steps on DPRK engagement with Japanese Foreign Minister Kono, while he and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang updated each other on their respective engagements with the North. The South Korean government has made clear its desire to see US-DPRK talks move forward, but is leery of getting too far out in front of the US on sanctions and other issues. Japan has been more wary of DPRK talks that have not yet directly involved Tokyo. While tensions between Seoul and Tokyo have escalated in recent months, bilateral and trilateral coordination with the US on North Korea appears to be unaffected.
Complicating the US-ROK alliance relationship, however, are defense burden sharing talks. Last year, the two sides held ten rounds of talks on sharing the cost for stationing 28,500 US troops in South Korea, but failed to reach an agreement before the Special Measures Agreement expired at the end of last year. Foreign Minister Kang confirmed earlier this week that the two sides were in “deep disagreement” over the issue. There continues to be deep concern in South Korea over any suggestion that Trump might reduce the US military presence.
A Look Ahead
The period since Singapore has seen little concrete movement toward our goal of denuclearization, but the fact that North Korea has not conducted a nuclear or long-range missile test in over a year creates an atmosphere in which productive talks can take place. It is encouraging that authoritative officials below the Secretary of State are now beginning. This provides hope that the next summit will produce more concrete results than the last.
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