U.S. Dispatches Army of Envoys to Salvage Talks
Posted May 27, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — The United States and North Korea on Sunday kicked off an urgent, behind-the-scenes effort to resurrect a summit meeting between their two leaders by June 12, racing to develop a joint agenda and dispel deep skepticism about the chances for reaching a framework for a lasting nuclear agreement in so little time.
Technical and diplomatic experts from the United States made a rare visit to North Korea to meet with their counterparts, U.S. officials said Sunday. Before any summit meeting, the U.S. team, led by Sung Kim, a veteran diplomat, is seeking detailed commitments from Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, about his regime’s willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
In a tweet Sunday night, President Donald Trump confirmed the meetings in the North Korean part of Panmunjom, a “truce village” in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. He also expressed his administration’s newfound optimism about the meeting, further embracing the conciliatory language both sides have used since he canceled the planned meeting in a bitterly worded letter to Kim Jong Un on Thursday.
“I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day,” Trump wrote on Twitter after a second straight day of golf at his Virginia club. “Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”
White House officials said Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff, is leading a separate delegation in Singapore, where the summit meeting had been scheduled to take place, to work out logistics: when the various meetings would take place, how much would be open to the press, which officials would be in the negotiating rooms, how to handle security concerns.
The simultaneous negotiations in the DMZ and in Singapore signaled an accelerated effort by the governments in both countries to complete the substantive and practical preparations required to get the meeting back on track.
Such issues would typically be handled by a well-established diplomatic process of lower-level negotiations that usually takes months, if not years, before a meeting between the leaders of two nations. But Trump short-circuited that process in March, when he abruptly accepted an invitation to meet with Kim.
Now, after just as abruptly canceling the summit meeting, Trump has — wittingly or not — set in motion a more normal set of discussions to lay the groundwork for an agreement about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program before a decision on whether to hold a meeting between the two leaders after all.
The timeline is still extraordinarily condensed. Trump’s repeatedly stated desire to keep June 12 as a possible date for a summit meeting means that officials on both sides are rushing to see if the necessary preparations can be completed in a matter of days. Veteran negotiators said it remained unclear whether the two sides could complete enough work to make a meeting possible.
“The president says he’s not going to go until there is substantial agreement. The question is, is there time to reach that kind of agreement?” said Joseph Y. Yun, a former chief North Korea negotiator at the State Department, who retired in part because of his frustration with his agency’s diminished role. “Right now, the summit is kind of teetering on whether we make progress on those things.”
Two top Republican lawmakers expressed deep misgivings Sunday about the prospects for a successful summit meeting in just over two weeks, and warned that Kim would never agree to give up the nuclear weapons his country has spent decades developing.
“I remain convinced that he does not want to denuclearize, in fact he will not denuclearize,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said on ABC’s “This Week.” He dismissed demonstrations of goodwill by Kim — including the release of American prisoners and the destruction of a nuclear test site — as meaningless.
“It’s all a show,” Rubio said. “It’s a show.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., echoed Rubio’s concerns. He said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that a freeze of the country’s weapons program would be progress, but added that “a lot of us have been skeptical that North Korea will ever agree to total denuclearization.”
Veterans of past negotiations with North Korea also expressed concern Sunday about the possibility that Kim could demand that in exchange for denuclearization, the United States must withdraw its “nuclear umbrella” that protects South Korea from adversaries.
James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, who spent part of his early intelligence career in South Korea, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that such a demand could mean the United States would have to agree not to fly its nuclear-capable bombers “in the Korean Peninsula or in operational proximity.”
It is unclear if Trump would ever agree to significant restrictions on the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
U.S. officials have said the discussions are progressing well, offering the same kind of optimistic assessment that Trump has delivered over the past 48 hours.
In brief remarks to reporters Saturday night, the president said the lower-level negotiations are “going along very well,” though he added his usual caveat: “We’ll see what happens.” On the Korean Peninsula, a surprise meeting between Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea also produced some progress toward a meeting.
Moon said Kim wanted to discuss “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” with Trump.
“What is not so clear to him is how firmly he can trust the United States’ commitment to ending hostile relations and providing security guarantees for his government, should it denuclearize,” Moon said Sunday at a news conference in Seoul, the South Korean capital, the day after the meeting on the North Korean side of Panmunjom.
The answer to that question may hinge on the lower-level discussions going on between representatives of the two countries, a fraught process that can sometimes dissolve into disagreement and at other times produce halting progress toward a meeting.
Administration officials say they are under no illusions that the team now in North Korea can negotiate the details to begin to dismantle the sprawling nuclear, missile and biological weapons programs in North Korea — all of which were part of the objective Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out recently for the talks. In the case of the Iran deal, a detailed plan struck in 2015 that Trump abandoned this month as insufficient, the negotiations took more than two years.
But they can negotiate language and a timetable that Kim and Trump can agree on, a framework for further negotiations. That alone would be a major accomplishment, as North Korea has rejected the idea of rapid denuclearization, and wants a step-by-step approach.
The United States would also have to agree to changes it would make, perhaps opening talks on a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War. Another possible concession would be to provide security guarantees to the North that go beyond previous presidents’ pledges that the United States would not seek to overthrow the current government.
But for now, veteran diplomats said the negotiating teams from the United States have the kind of experience needed to at least work out the details needed for a summit meeting.
The meetings in North Korea on Sunday, which were first reported by The Washington Post, reflected Trump’s willingness to turn to diplomats and functionaries with decades of experience and deep ties to former President George W. Bush. Hagin was a close Bush confidant and fixer in the White House, and Sung Kim, the diplomat leading the American team, was tapped by Bush for a role similar to his new one. A former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Sung Kim is no stranger to the details of North Korea’s nuclear program — or the country’s deceptions.
A decade ago this month, he and a small team of State Department officials were in Pyongyang to collect the operating records of a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. He came across the DMZ with thousands of pages, which American experts at the CIA and the Energy Department used to calculate how much plutonium the country could have produced.
Ultimately, North Korea blew up the cooling tower of that reactor, much as it blew up tunnel entrances to its nuclear test site last week. But within a few years, the reactor was back up and running. And now Sung Kim faces a far more complex program — one that has produced more than 20 nuclear weapons, that now has uranium enrichment capabilities as well as the plutonium program, and missiles the CIA estimates will soon be able to reach most U.S. cities.
News of any progress his team is making will likely be sporadic, given the lack of secure communications from inside North Korea, officials said.
Yun said the goal for the U.S. team was likely to be developing a set of documents, agreed on by both sides, that detail the three steps that North Korea is willing to consider taking toward elimination of its nuclear weapons program.
The first step, he said, is a declaration of how far the North Koreans are willing to go in unwinding their weapons program. The second is deciding how and when the North Koreans would provide an accounting of that process to the United States. And the third is determining how the United States would verify those claims.
“It’s a good group,” Yun said. “It’s a technical group. It’s an expert group, and they know the issues. They know what needs to be done.”