TOKYO – U.S. envoy Stephen Biegun travels Wednesday to meet his North Korean counterpart in Pyongyang, where he will try to advance a plan to reinvigorate denuclearization talks ahead of a new summit.
President Donald Trump gets credit from many North Korea experts for opening a dialogue with Kim Jong Un after years of drift under his predecessor, Barack Obama – a period when North Korea built up its nuclear and missile programs. But Trump has been criticized for failing to elicit any firm commitment from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to begin the process of denuclearization when they met for the first time in Singapore last June.
Since his appointment in August as special representative for North Korea, Biegun has played a central role in trying to put substance around what the United States wants and how it wants to achieve it.
Initially frozen out by the North Koreans, he accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet Kim Jong Un last October, and met his newly appointed counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, in Washington last month for what he called an “extended working-level discussion” that was “productive, focused, results-oriented.”
Biegun was initially expected to meet Kim Hyok Chol in the Korean border village of Panmunjom for a second time on Tuesday, but the fact that he has been invited to Pyongyang suggests the North Koreans are taking him more seriously, experts said.
Last Thursday, Biegun set out for the first time in a speech at Stanford University how he hopes to move the denuclearization process forward, taking what several experts described as a more flexible and realistic approach than the administration has adopted thus far.
“His speech represents a genuine breakthrough in thinking about North Korea as a U.S. policy dilemma,” said John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
Delury said he believes the Trump administration is pursuing a radical shift in U.S. policy toward North Korea – advancing denuclearization as part of a larger process of fundamentally transforming relations between the two countries – a shift that he said Biegun set out “with a level of detail and thoughtfulness that is revelatory.”
Biegun said the administration is ready to engage with North Korea despite “dramatically different views on individual rights and on human rights,” and with Trump “deeply and personally committed to once and for all bringing an end to 70 years of war and hostility.”
In particular, he spelled out that the United States hopes to move “simultaneously and in parallel” with the North Koreans in implementing the pledges their two leaders made in Singapore, including denuclearization, transforming their relations and building lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.
In the recent past, Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have given the impression that the United States wanted North Korea to move unilaterally to surrender its nuclear and missile program completely before obtaining sanctions relief. That brought a warning from Kim Jong Un in a New Year’s Day speech that he might be forced to follow a new path if Washington continues to insist he move unilaterally while sanctions are maintained.
Biegun has advanced a slightly more nuanced position. It was correct to say that sanctions would be lifted only when denuclearization is achieved, he said, but that is not the same as saying “we won’t do anything until you do everything” – in other words, that there are steps the United States could take to build confidence in the meantime.
He reiterated that the U.S. administration wants to see a “comprehensive declaration” of North Korea’s “weapons of mass destruction missile programs” but said that should come “at some point” before complete denuclearization.
Until now, the administration has been asking for a full declaration up front, something Pyongyang has resisted, and the South Korean government has seen as unrealistic.
Biegun also said that Kim Jong Un had told Pompeo that he was prepared to dismantle and destroy all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities, at “a complex of sites” extending beyond the main, well-known complex at Yongbyon, provided the United States takes “corresponding measures.”
That would extend the offer that Kim Jong Un apparently made when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in last September, to dismantle Yongbyon. But experts said the fact that he has not made such an offer publicly, and because it is conditional on unspecified U.S. concessions, it was hard to know how seriously to take it.
Biegun also won praise from some North Korea watchers for admitting that both sides had made mistakes over the past 25 years of negotiations, a far cry from Washington’s usual position of blaming Pyongyang only for its cheating and perfidy.
He was also realistic enough to admit that in Singapore “there was no detailed definition or shared agreement of what denuclearization entails.”
Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said it was a good sign that Washington was not hiding the divergence on this issue.
“President Trump was entrapped by North Koreans in Singapore after front-loading too many actions for that first summit,” he said. “The U.S. is taking a more realistic approach to the second summit, with clear demands and firm commitments.”
Mintaro Oba, a speechwriter at West Wing Writers and a former diplomat at the State Department’s Korea desk, said Biegun had taken “baby steps” in two key areas where U.S. policy had been severely deficient, namely in better managing public expectations and in “proactively defining a public narrative” on U.S. terms, instead of allowing itself to be outmanoeuvred by Pyongyang.
“By making a speech with a healthy amount of positive, public signals, Biegun took a step toward making the United States seem like it is actively trying to make progress and putting the onus on North Korea,” Oba said.
The question now is how the North Koreans will react.
In the past Pyongyang has given the impression it was not interested in working-level talks and instead wanted to leave all the big decisions to Trump and Kim Jong Un – perhaps because they felt Trump was more easily outmaneuvered. But experts say it is unrealistic to expect success in Vietnam unless Biegun and Kim Hyok Chol prepare the ground in advance.
“U.S. and North Koreans negotiators only have two or three weeks to form very important agreements,” said Junya Nishino, director of Contemporary Korean Studies at Keio University in Tokyo. “Actually I don’t think there is enough time.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Simon Denyer ·