North Korea Is Willing to Discuss Giving Up Nuclear Weapons, South Says

March 6, 2018

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/world/asia/north-korea-south-nuclear-weapons.html

By CHOE SANG-HUN and MARK LANDLER

 

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has told South Korean envoys that he is willing to begin negotiations with the United States on abandoning its nuclear weapons and that it would suspend all nuclear and missile tests while engaged in such talks, South Korean officials said on Tuesday.

President Trump reacted with guarded optimism to the news, which potentially represented a major defusing of one of the world’s most tense confrontations.

During the envoys’ two-day visit to Pyongyang, the North’s capital, which ended on Tuesday, the two Koreas also agreed to hold a summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea on the countries’ border in late April, Mr. Moon’s office said in a statement.

“The North Korean side clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize,” the statement said. “It made it clear that it would have no reason to keep nuclear weapons if the military threat to the North was eliminated and its security guaranteed.”

If the statement is corroborated by North Korea, it would be the first time Mr. Kim has indicated that his government is willing to discuss giving up nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees from the United States. Until now, North Korea has said its nuclear weapons were not for bargaining away.

“The North expressed its willingness to hold a heartfelt dialogue with the United States on the issues of denuclearization and normalizing relations with the United States,” the statement said. “It made it clear that while dialogue is continuing, it will not attempt any strategic provocations, such as nuclear and ballistic missile tests.”

On Twitter, Mr. Trump, who has veered from bellicose threats against Mr. Kim to offers to sit down with him, welcomed what he called “possible progress” with the North. “For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Mr. Trump said. “The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”

The South Korean statement said the two Koreas would begin working-level discussions to prepare for the summit meeting, to be held in the Peace House, a South Korean building in Panmunjom, the so-called truce village that straddles the border. Before Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon meet, the countries will install, for the first time, a hotline by which the leaders can talk on the phone directly, the statement said.

The statement gave no indication that North Korea would start dismantling nuclear or missile programs anytime soon. Nonetheless, the reported agreements represented major progress in Mr. Moon’s efforts to improve relations with North Korea. Those efforts advanced considerably during the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to which Mr. Kim sent athletes, entertainers and political delegations that included his sister.

The top South Korean envoys who returned from North Korea on Tuesday — Mr. Moon’s national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, and the director of the South’s National Intelligence Service, Suh Hoon — are expected to be dispatched to Washington this week to brief the Trump administration on their discussions with Mr. Kim.

Mr. Chung told reporters in Seoul, the South Korean capital, that Mr. Kim had been unexpectedly flexible. He said the delegation had expected him to insist that the South and the United States not hold their annual joint military exercises, which were suspended for the Olympics.

“Kim Jong-un simply said he could understand why the joint exercises must resume in April on the same scale as before,” Mr. Chung said. “But he said he expected them to be readjusted if the situation on the Korean Peninsula stabilizes in the future.”

Mr. Chung said the South Koreans believed that their agreements with North Korea would be enough to start a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. He also said he was carrying additional messages from Mr. Kim to the Trump administration that he could not reveal.

“There was no other specific demand from North Korea in returning to dialogue,” he said. “They only said they wanted to be treated like a serious dialogue partner.”

For the president, the overture by North Korea sets in motion a challenging phase that will call on the United States to exercise diplomatic muscles after a long stretch in which the White House relied on economic pressure, backed by threats of military force, to deal with the North.

That challenge will be compounded because the State Department’s veteran North Korea negotiator, Joe Yun, recently announced his retirement from the Foreign Service. Another experienced negotiator, Victor Cha, was recently sidelined when the White House decided not to move ahead with his nomination as ambassador to South Korea.

Administration officials are deeply wary of being drawn into a negotiation in which the United States makes concessions — on issues like military exercises or shipments of medical and food aid — only to see the North Koreans renege on their commitments later.

Mr. Trump has said that the United States could talk with North Korea, but “only under the right conditions.” American officials have repeatedly said they can start negotiations with the North only if it agrees to discuss denuclearizing. They have also insisted that the North first take some actions that would convince them of its sincerity.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera of Japan, which has steadfastly supported the Trump administration’s tough approach to sanctions against North Korea, struck a note of caution about Pyongyang’s interest in negotiations.

“While talking about nuclear abandonment several times, it turned out that North Korea didn’t halt its nuclear development in the past,” Mr. Onodera said. “We need to carefully assess if this North and South dialogue will really lead to the abandonment of nuclear and missile development.”

China, which has pushed for direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington for many months, had no immediate reaction to the South Korean statement. One Chinese expert on North Korea characterized Pyongyang’s reported offer as “concessions that are dramatic and significant.”

“It will be hard for the U.S. government to resist,” said the expert, Cheng Xiaohe, of Renmin University in Beijing.

But Evans J. R. Revere, a former State Department official who was involved in past negotiations with North Korea, was less impressed. He said the formula of denuclearization for security guarantees had “been the basis of several sets of talks” between the two countries in the past.

“The U.S. has actually provided security guarantees to North Korea, including in writing by President Clinton,” Mr. Revere said. “Such guarantees have never been adequate or acceptable to the North Koreans, just as the U.S. provision of alternative energy sources, food and other assistance has never proved adequate.”

He also noted that the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests offered by the North would not prevent Pyongyang from continuing to build its nuclear arsenal, including by producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Even so, Mr. Revere said the Trump administration would be hard-pressed to reject the North’s proposal without making it appear that Washington — not Pyongyang — was the problem.

“With these developments, the door seems wide open to a U.S.-North Korea exploratory conversation if both sides want one,” he said. The North went to considerable lengths to meet the American demand that dialogue had to be about denuclearization, he said.

The 10 members of the delegation Mr. Moon sent to the North were the first South Korean officials to meet Mr. Kim since he took power six years ago. They were also the first outside officials to directly hear Mr. Kim explain his intentions regarding his country’s nuclear weapons programs.

Mr. Kim, 34, has accelerated the North’s nuclear and missile tests since inheriting power after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011. Mr. Moon spent most of the past year helplessly watching the Korean Peninsula edge toward possible war as the North test-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducted its most powerful nuclear test yet, while Mr. Trump threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea.

After launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in November, Mr. Kim claimed to have a “nuclear button” on his desk with which he could fire missiles capable of reaching the mainland United States. American officials say Mr. Kim is getting dangerously close to being able to strike the United States with nuclear-tipped missiles.

But Mr. Kim suddenly shifted his tone on New Year’s Day, using an annual speech to propose sending a delegation to the Olympics. During the Games last month, his sister, Kim Yo-jong, hand-delivered his proposal for a summit meeting with Mr. Moon.

The South Korean leader hoped to use the thaw surrounding the Olympics to improve inter-Korean ties and to steer the United States and North Korea away from what he called a collision course. Analysts say Mr. Kim’s sudden overture for dialogue is driven at least in part by his desire to weaken sanctions that have begun biting his isolated country, as well as to stave off Washington’s threat to use military force.

But even if Washington and Pyongyang were to begin a dialogue, analysts have said, the onetime battlefield enemies would find it hard to reach a compromise.

Washington says it will settle for nothing less than a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of the North’s nuclear weapons program. But Pyongyang has insisted that Washington discuss not only denuclearization but also ending such “hostile” policies as the American military presence in South Korea and the two allies’ war games, which Pyongyang says drove it to build a nuclear deterrent in the first place.

Washington remains deeply skeptical of any attempt by the South to improve ties with the North without progress on denuclearization. Although Mr. Moon wants inter-Korean dialogue, he has said that the two initiatives must move “in parallel,” and has been urging the United States and North Korea to start negotiations on the nuclear program.

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