- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Trump administration’s top envoy for diplomacy with North Korea says the possibility of removing U.S. forces from South Korea has so far not been raised in talks as a way to entice Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear arsenal.

“We are not involved in any diplomatic discussion, full stop, that would suggest this trade-off,” U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said Thursday. “It has never been discussed.”

Mr. Biegun’s comments, during a rare public appearance before an audience at Stanford University, came against speculation that has swirled around President Trump’s view of the U.S. troops issue ahead of an anticipated second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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South Korean sources have raised concern that Mr. Trump, who recently ordered the withdrawal of American forces from Syria and has signaled a desire to bring them home from other locals, including Afghanistan, might see the some 30,000 U.S. troops currently positioned in South Korea as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Mr. Kim.

Mr. Biegun pushed past the issue Thursday, asserting that the White House has back-up plans if delicate diplomacy with North Korea fails — while also stressing that the administration is pushing for denuclearization talks to succeed and is committed to helping Pyongyang achieve “a bright future” if it verifiably ends its nuclear weapons program.

“President Trump has made clear that should North Korea follow through on Chairman Kim’s commitment to complete denuclearization, the United States will in return exceed anything previously thought possible,” he said in remarks at Stanford’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

The assertions by Mr. Biegun, a former Ford Motor Co. executive tapped by Mr. Trump in August to get working-level talks moving with the North Koreans, came just days after The Washington Times reported that the administration is quietly preparing a special “economic package” designed to entice Mr. Kim into taking specific steps toward denuclearization.

Sources speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times that the initiative has already been touted in private talks with the North Koreans and involves creating a kind of escrow account to prove to Mr. Kim that the U.S. and its allies are truly committed to rewarding Pyongyang economically if it comes through on abandoning its nuclear weapons.

While the State Department has not commented publicly, and Mr. Biegun did not offer specifics on Thursday, the sources familiar with the plan said it centers on securing guarantees for billions of dollars worth of cash contributions from Japan, South Korea, the European Union and others that would go toward North Korean infrastructure and development projects.

“These are guarantees that can be waved under Kim’s nose to assure him of the pot of gold waiting for him on the other side of the rainbow,” one of the sources said.

Mr. Biegun, meanwhile, pushed back Thursday against critics who’ve lamented a lack of progress toward denuclearization since Mr. Trump’s first summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore last June. While he acknowledged the U.S. and North Korea have yet to agree on a clear definition of what denuclearization actually means, he said framed the Singapore summit as the first crucial step in a delicate process.

He also expressed “frustration” over media reports on the U.S. intelligence community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment this week, a document that seemed to outright reject the idea that Pyongyang will ever voluntarily surrender its nuclear arsenal.

The threat assessment threw cold water on Mr. Trump’s declaration following the Singapore summit that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat, with Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley telling lawmakers on Tuesday that “the capabilities and threat that existed a year ago are still there.”

Mr. Biegun said Thursday that U.S. diplomats are well aware of such intelligence, but that he personally felt the threat assessment was taken out of context. “If you divorce it from policy, then you have an incomplete picture,” he said, adding that the very existence of the threat makes it “all the more important that we engage.”

He said second Trump-Kim summit will occur by the end of February, although no specific date or location has been announced.

The focus going forward, Mr. Biegun said, is to build from the goodwill and the joint-statement that Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim signed at their first summit in Singapore.

While regional experts stress the importance of so-called “working level pre-negotiations” between North Korean and U.S. officials, Mr. Biegun stressed that the current process centers on the reality that “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 countries.”

“We have communicated to our North Korean counterparts that we are prepared to pursue — simultaneously and in parallel — all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer, along with planning for a bright future for the people of North Korea and the new opportunities that will open when sanctions are lifted and the Korean Peninsula is at peace, provided that North Korea likewise fulfills its commitment to final, fully verified denuclearization,” he said.

But Mr. Biegun also said the administration is clear-eyed about the history of failure in past denuclearization talks. “We need to have contingencies if the diplomatic process fails — which we do,” he said.

At the same time, he suggested the Trump administration may support a formal declaration ending the Korean war that was frozen in 1953 not by a peace treaty but an armistice that has seen North and South pitted against each other over the decades since.

“The president is convinced it is time to move past 70 years of conflict on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Biegun said.

“It is over,” he said. “We are not going to invade.”

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