- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2019

Trump administration and North Korean officials held their first “working level” talks on denuclearization over the weekend in Sweden, preparing for the second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that U.S. officials say is slated by the end of February.

Although the administration was mum on the talks in Stockholm, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea because Washington has no embassy there, South Korean media and foreign diplomatic sources said Stephen Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, met with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.

Coming on the heels of a separate meeting Friday between President Trump and former North Korean spy chief Kim Yong-chol in Washington, the Stockholm talks are the latest sign of serious diplomatic movement in the otherwise stalled U.S. and South Korean push to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.

But even as the stage is now set for Mr. Trump to meet with Kim Jong-un for a second summit, reportedly in Vietnam, seasoned Korea watchers are wary that the president may get spun by the young North Korean leader, whose regime has decades of experience dragging out talks and evading U.N. Security Council resolutions.

A former high-level CIA official in Korea asserted over the weekend that there has been no progress on denuclearization since the historic first summit in Singapore in June and warned that Mr. Trump can’t afford to “get outplayed again” as the two head toward their second meeting.

Bruce Klingner, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former CIA Korea deputy division chief, made the assertion Saturday just as Mr. Trump claimed he had an “incredible” meeting a day earlier with North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Yong-chol, asserting that “a lot of progress” was made on denuclearization.

Despite the president’s optimism, Mr. Klingner said, the denuclearization process “never left the station” after Singapore. “During a second summit, Trump must insist on tangible steps toward North Korean denuclearization, including a data declaration of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs,” he said in comments circulated to reporters. “Trump shouldn’t offer more concessions nor agree to reduce U.N. and U.S. sanctions until Kim moves beyond the symbolic gestures it has taken so far.”

The administration’s silence on the working-level talks between Mr. Biegun and his North Korean counterpart in Sweden on Sunday added to speculation that the administration may be seeking some form of interim deal with North Korea that could involve limited sanctions relief in exchange for clear steps by Mr. Kim toward abandoning his nuclear arsenal or his intercontinental ballistic missile program.

South Korean sources have expressed concern about the prospect of such a deal, and South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Sunday that Seoul’s top nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, had arrived in Sweden for a possible three-way negotiation with Mr. Biegun and the North Koreans.

The White House, meanwhile, rejected over the weekend the notion of any sanctions relief on an interim basis. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the U.S. “is going to continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearization.”

The Kim regime has halted nuclear and missile tests over the past year but taken few verifiable steps toward destroying its nuclear program. Also, U.S. intelligence has pointed to ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile activity in North Korea during the months since the first Trump-Kim summit.

U.S. officials have long said their primary concern is over the threat that North Korea will attach nuclear warheads to intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. homeland.

Playing hard to get

Mr. Kim has recently said he will fully denuclearize only if the U.S. removes its own nuclear threat from the Korean Peninsula. Many read the statement as a sign that the North Korean leader won’t budge unless the Trump administration removes American troops and other military assets from South Korea.

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday responded to critics of Mr. Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis by asserting that the president successfully led a process that significantly tamped down the immediate threat from Pyongyang.

“Look, think about where we were two years ago. When the president and I took our oath of office,” Mr. Pence told Fox News. “Two years ago today, we had a regime in North Korea that was testing nuclear weapons, that was firing missiles over the Sea of Japan [and] making menacing statements against the United States and our allies.”

Mr. Pence stressed that Mr. Kim signed a joint statement agreeing to the goal of denuclearization at the first Trump-Kim summit.

“There will be a second summit, and at that summit we will be laying out our expectation for North Korea to take concrete steps to begin to make real the denuclearization that Kim Jong-un committed to,” the vice president said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has led the administration’s push for diplomacy with the Kim regime with multiple trips to Pyongyang over the past two years, offered a similar assessment Friday.

“Some critics have said we’ve offered too much. Many critics have said we haven’t offered enough. I don’t have much to add other than the president has made enormous strides in working with North Korea to get their commitment to denuclearize,” Mr. Pompeo said in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. “We now need to execute. We need to implement. We’ve always known this would be a long process. While we do that, we need to make sure we reduce risk, and we’ve done that.

“There aren’t nuclear tests being conducted. There haven’t been missile tests conducted. These are things that were threatening the United States when President Trump took office,” he said. “We want to reduce that risk, reduce North Korea’s capacity to build out their program. These discussions are an important component for making sure that we do everything we can to deliver on the commitments that were made in Singapore between Chairman Kim and President Trump.”

Breaking the stalemate

Even some conservative analysts say the two sides have been locked in a stalemate since the first Trump-Kim summit and warn that Mr. Kim may seek to draw concessions directly from Mr. Trump without taking any serious, verifiable steps toward denuclearizing.

David Maxwell, a retired Army Special Forces colonel and North Korea analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Sunday that the administration must move quickly and carefully through its working-level negotiations with the North Koreans.

“I am hard-pressed to see how a second summit will unfold and be any more substantive than Singapore unless real working-level negotiations take place before the summit,” he said in comments circulated to reporters. “If they don’t take place before the summit, nothing will come out of it other than another photo op.

“It is going to take a long time to negotiate and execute [final fully verified denuclearization]. Although the leaders can agree in principle and make statements supporting the concept of FFVD the devil is truly in the details, and if there are no working-level negotiations, there can be no progress,” Mr. Maxwell said. “Hopefully, the meetings between Biegun and Choe will begin the process and they can get work done before the second summit.”

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