- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2019

President Trump and his top advisers expressed optimism through the weekend that diplomatic efforts on denuclearization talks with Pyongyang can be revived, despite reports of North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear activity.

National Security Adviser John R. Bolton sought to dampen the hype around the prospect that a North Korean missile launch could be imminent after the emergence in recent days of commercial satellite imagery appearing to show cranes at work rebuilding a key test site that Pyongyang previously vowed to destroy.

“There’s a lot of activity all the time in North Korea, but I’m not going to speculate on what that particular commercial satellite picture shows,” said Mr. Bolton, who stuck during Sunday talk show appearances to the same cautious, wait-and-see message that Mr. Trump began pushing last week in response to reports of activity at the Tongchang-ri rocket launch site.

Other reports suggest that ongoing enrichment activities by the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have added to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons arsenal over the past year.

Mr. Bolton said U.S. intelligence sees “unblinkingly” what the North Koreans are doing and stressed that the administration has no “illusions about what their capabilities are.”

But the national security adviser stressed during an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that Mr. Trump remains “confident in his personal relationship with Kim Jong-un” and open to a third summit after talks between the two leaders broke down in Hanoi in late February.


SEE ALSO: National Security Adviser John Bolton downplays prospect of imminent North Korean missile launch


Post-summit low point

Behind the scenes, administration officials say the concept of another summit feels increasingly distant because working-level talks with the North Koreans have yet to resume.

“Both sides are going to have to digest the outcome of the summit,” one senior State Department official involved in the nuclear diplomacy said on the condition of anonymity.

In the interim, the official said, the administration’s maximum pressure through sanctions policy will “be maintained and, if the president decides, the sanctions will be increased.”

There is speculation that Stephen E. Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, will use a speech Monday at a major nuclear policy conference in Washington to announce plans for a resumption of working-level talks, but many analysts are circumspect and say uncertainty over the way forward is as deep now as it has been over the past year.

“It just remains to be seen what happens over the next few months,” said Frank Aum, a former Pentagon adviser and a senior North Korea analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“It’s disappointing that there weren’t any road maps that were set from Hanoi — no working-level negotiations or a process for [them] that was described,” Mr. Aum said. “I anticipate that it will be a continuation of the sort of ad hoc meetings that we’ve seen over the last year and a half, where we hear all of a sudden that [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo is going to Pyongyang, right, or maybe Biegun is doing some track two dialogue.”

Ambassador Joseph Yun, a former top State Department official who joined Mr. Aum at a discussion Friday with reporters hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the real difference between Washington and Pyongyang remains “the definition of denuclearization.”

The U.S. view is that denuclearization means total abandonment of all nuclear weapons and materials by the Kim regime in a manner verifiable by international nuclear inspectors, said Mr. Yun, an adviser at the institute. He suggested that the North Koreans still view denuclearization as something to include a potentially sensitive drawback of America’s overall military posture across East Asia.

“For them, it’s denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and corollary to that is that all nuclear threats from the U.S. and [South Korea] must be removed, as well as threats from the region that are posed against North Korea,” he said. “To me, that smacks of a little bit of Japan and also Guam.”

Pressure for a deal

Mr. Yun, who, as special envoy on North Korea from 2016 to 2018 had an instrumental back-channel role in sparking the diplomatic push, asserted that the failure of Hanoi to result in any tangible agreement or sanctions relief for Pyongyang was “really bad news” for Mr. Kim.

Mr. Trump’s decision to reassert the traditional American position that “we cannot move on sanctions until there is much more progress on denuclearization” has essentially altered “the power dynamics of negotiations,” he said. “The North Korean leader is not associated with failures. There is no failure in their vocabulary for the leader. So, very bad news for Kim Jong-un. It’s almost like he’s in timeout, you know?”

State-controlled media in Pyongyang acknowledged for the first time Friday that the Hanoi summit ended without an agreement. After more than a week of general silence on the matter, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of Mr. Kim’s ruling Workers’ Party, published a commentary Friday asserting that Washington was to blame.

Mr. Yun, previously a principal deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the lack of an agreement likely also frustrated South Korean President Moon Jae-in. “This is also very bad news for Moon,” said Mr. Yun. “He had really banked on getting something out of it to allow inter-Korean dialogue to deepen, and this is a problem.”

The South Korean president appeared to have hoped for an announcement of U.S. sanctions relief that could boost South-North projects such as an impending industrial park, tourism exchanges and a possible rail link across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two nations. In the wake of Hanoi, Mr. Moon replaced his unification minister, who played a major role in detente with North Korea over the past year, with a longtime confidant.

Launch site activity

Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office last week that he would be disappointed if North Korea is resuming rocket activity, but he also questioned the veracity of what he described as a very early report on the matter.

An article from 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea security issues, said commercial satellite imagery appears to show that efforts to rebuild some structures at Tongchang-ri started sometime between Feb. 16 and March 2. That suggests North Koreans were active at the site while Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump were meeting in Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28.

A high-level source familiar with the U.S.-North Korean negotiations suggested that the reports were overblown. He told The Washington Times that the activity was likely “nothing more than routine maintenance,” but the stakes around the developments are high.

Mr. Bolton, who in the past has advocated for regime change in Pyongyang and is known as the administration official with perhaps the most hard-line views on North Korea, stressed Sunday that Mr. Trump still believes it is “a positive sign” that North Korea has not carried out a nuclear detonation or ballistic missile test since he met with Mr. Kim at the Singapore summit in June.

The national security adviser declined to speculate on whether a sudden North Korean missile or rocket launch would scuttle the prospect of further talks, but he said Mr. Trump is “determined to avoid the mistakes prior presidents have made.”

“One mistake that prior administrations made repeatedly was assuming that the North Koreans would automatically comply when they undertake obligations,” Mr. Bolton said. “The North Koreans, for example, have pledged to give up their nuclear weapons program at least five separate times. … They never seem to get around to it, though. So that’s one reason why we pay particular attention to what North Korea is doing all the time.”

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