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Top US envoy on North Korea: 'We are not going to invade North Korea'

The State Department's top envoy on North Korea said Thursday that the US is not looking to invade that nation and seemed to strongly signal that the US would be willing to formally end the Korean War.

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Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood
Zachary Cohen, CNN
CNN — The State Department's top envoy on North Korea said Thursday that the US is not looking to invade that nation and seemed to strongly signal that the US would be willing to formally end the Korean War.

"President Trump is ready to end this war," Steve Biegun said at Stanford. "It is over, it is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime."

"I am absolutely convinced, and more importantly the President of the United States is convinced, that it's time to move past 70 years of war and hostility in the Korean peninsula. There's no reason for this conflict to persist any longer," Biegun added.

The North Koreans have pushed for the US to commit to a formal peace treaty to end the decades-old conflict. North Korea's Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-In pledged to bring a formal end to the Korean War during their landmark summit last April.

In his remarks at Stanford, Biegun also knocked down the prospect that the US would agree to withdraw troops from South Korea as a concession to Kim -- a move that some were concerned President Donald Trump might make.

"We are not involved in any diplomatic discussion -- full stop -- that would suggest this tradeoff. It has never been discussed," Biegun said.

Biegun's remarks sought to shed a positive light on the "progress" made in relations between the US and the Hermit Kingdom. However, the ultimate goal of the "final, fully verified denuclearization" of North Korea still remains largely out of reach, according to an intelligence assessment released this week. Sources told CNN that the discussion around this goal during North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol's visit to Washington, DC, earlier this month also "got nowhere."

"It is fair to say we have more work ahead of us than behind us," Biegun acknowledged. However, he also took aim at the intelligence assessment, saying he "entirely (shares) President Trump's frustration with the way this intelligence information was briefed and played out."

On Wednesday, Trump publicly chastised his intelligence officials after they contradicted several of his foreign policy claims during a Senate hearing the day prior. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that North Korea "is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons." His CIA counterpart, Gina Haspel, said Pyongyang "is committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that would pose a direct threat to the United States."

Biegun did not dispute the veracity of what Haspel and Coats said but took issue with the way the information was presented.

"So my frustration isn't with the accuracy of the information, it's how it's presented and how it's interpreted," he said. "You cannot divorce the intelligence information from the policy."

"If I were presenting the same information, I would say that we have the potential here for a grave threat to the United States of America and therefore it is all the more urgent that we engage diplomatically with North Korea to see if we can change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own," Biegun said.

Biegun's remarks, delivered as he prepares to travel to Seoul for meetings with North and South Korean officials, were his first public address since taking the job five months ago.

That job has not been easy. He described recent meetings in Washington, DC with North Korean counterparts as "productive, focused, and results-oriented." Yet Biegun's working-level meetings with North Koreans have been hard to get on the calendar, with the North Koreans being non-committal. Biegun noted that he has made contact with North Koreans at every level since taking the job, but cited the "convoluted" process of getting messages between the two nations and the need to make official communications easier.

The direct and holistic ownership that Kim and Trump have assumed over the negotiations has meant that even when there are problems setting up lower level negotiations, Trump has remained starry-eyed about the prospect of North Korea's denuclearization. Biegun referenced that approach in his speech, but sought to give it a more positive interpretation given that neither Kim nor Trump are constrained by "traditional expectations."

"President Trump and Chairman Kim have decided to pursue a top-down approach with a breadth of actions that -- if successful -- will fundamentally transform relations between our two nations," Biegun said.

"Now is the opportunity, and now is the moment. The United States is ready to turn the vision outlined by President Trump and Chairman Kim at Singapore into reality," he added.

Biegun heralded the "preliminary steps" North Korea has taken to destroy some of their nuclear and missile test sites. Yet in more than a year since the Trump administration and North Korea began engaging in diplomacy, North Korea has not taken any tangible action that is said to have impacted the capability of their nuclear program.

Biegun also did not voice a direct condemnation of the human rights abuses of Kim's authoritarian regime -- some of which the United Nations have identified as crimes against humanity.

"It is an understatement to say that our two systems are very different," he said. "We have dramatically different views on individual rights and on human rights."

Trump's agenda during the second summit with Kim Jong Un, which they plan to take place a the end of February, is still not clear. Biegun cited the need for a "comprehensive declaration" of their weapons of mass destruction and missile programs but he made no promises that the North Koreans would hand over that information at the next summit. Instead he said the US would get that information "at some point."

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