U.S. and North Korea Say Changes Must Precede Third Summit
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump have both said they are willing to meet for a third summit but are looking for certain conditions to be met ahead of any meeting. Kim said the United States must be more flexible and Trump is looking for North Korea to demonstrate its willingness to give up nuclear weapons.
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said in an April 17 interview with Bloomberg that Washington is looking for a “real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.” He said Trump would be willing to participate in a third summit if he can get a “real deal,” which Bolton described as a “big deal,” likely referring to a more comprehensive agreement (see below for details).
Kim told the Supreme People’s Assembly April 12 that he is willing to try “one more time,” if Washington proposes a third summit. However, the United States has to have the “right stance” and “methodology,” Kim said, perhaps referring to North Korea’s preference for a step-by-step approach and puts economic sanctions relief on the table early in the process in exchange of actions toward denuclearization. He called for the United States to “lay down unilateral requirements and seek constructive solutions.”
Kim said that the United States is miscalculating if it believes North Korea can be pressured into submission. Kim gave the United States until the end of the year to change its negotiating approach, or the “prospects for solving a problem will be bleak and very dangerous.”
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry has also expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S. negotiating team and called for the removal of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as its head. In an April 18 statement, Kwon Jong Gun, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department of American Affairs, said that “talks will become entangled” if Pompeo is involved in future rounds of negotiations. He called Pompeo “reckless” and said North Korea would prefer a “person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”
There are no indications that new talks between Washington and Pyongyang’s negotiating teams are scheduled. The two sides have not met since the abrupt ending of the Hanoi Summit Feb. 28.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE, research assistant, and KELSEY DAVENPORT, director for nonproliferation policy
Trump-Moon Summit Makes Little Headway
Trump reiterated his preference for a “big deal” with North Korea to “get rid of the nuclear weapons” in comments to press during South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit to the White House April 11, but kept the door open for “various small deals that could happen.”
Moon appeared to make little headway toward his reported goal to persuade the United States to put limited economic sanctions relief for North Korea on the table earlier in the negotiations.
Trump said that he would support joint economic projects between the two Koreas at the right time, but that now is not that time. Trump stated that sanctions would “remain in place” until denuclearization is complete, but he would not increase them at this time.
Trump was reportedly open to easing sanctions at the Hanoi summit as long as sanctions relief was reversible, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said March 15. Choe blamed Pompeo and Bolton for thwarting a deal in Hanoi that included sanctions relief.
Moon’s lack of progress in securing sanctions waivers for inter-Korean projects during his meeting with Trump could hamper progress on that process. North Korean state media slammed South Korea in early April for “succumbing to the pressure of the U.S.” on the economic integration of the two Koreas. “This is an evasion of responsibility to implement the North-South declarations committed in front of the entire nation,” the commentary, by Kim Jun Dal written in the Uriminzokkiri, reads.
Moon met with Trump for less than two hours in Washington April 11. Before meeting with Trump, Moon met with Vice President Mike Pence, Pompeo, and Bolton. Preceding the Trump-Moon summit, Pompeo and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang met March 29.
Moon is also seeking a fourth summit with Kim. He said April 15 that it was time to “begin the preparations in earnest” for the next meeting. He hopes to hold “detailed and substantive talks on how to achieve further progress that goes beyond the previous two summits between Chairman Kim and President Trump.”
Kim told the Supreme People’s Assembly April 12 that South Korea should not attempt to act as a mediator in U.S.-North Korean negotiations. He said Moon should “subordinate everything to the improvement of North-South ties.”
North Korea Flight Tests New Tactical Weapon
North Korea announced April 18 that it had test-fired a new tactical guided weapon, in its first publicly reported weapons test since the Hanoi summit. It was not immediately clear what type of weapon the North Koreans fired, but it does not appear to be a longer-range ballistic missile. North Korea voluntarily announced a moratorium on long-range ballistic missile tests in April 2018. The description suggests it could be a short-range missile.
“This move isn't a break in North Korea's self-imposed suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests,” observes Suzanne DiMaggio, Senior Fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It's Kim Jong Un's way of demonstrating that his capabilities are more advanced today than they were two summits ago,” she said in a tweet April 17.
Putin-Kim Summit Expected for April
After weeks of speculation that Moscow and Pyongyang were planning a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced April 18 that a meeting will take place in Russia “in the second half of April.” The statement did not indicate where the meeting would take place, but a recent visit by North Korean officials to Vladivostok suggests that it might be a possible venue for the Putin-Kim summit.
U.S. Special Representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun traveled to Moscow April 17-18 to discuss “efforts to advance the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to the State Department.
North Korea’s Sanctions Evasion Continues
A March report from the UN Panel of Experts that assesses the implementation of UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea found that Pyongyang continues to engage in sophisticated methods of sanctions evasion and reported that the country was dispersing its ballistic missile assembly and storage locations, likely to prevent a decapitation strike.
The Panel of Experts is also investigating North Korea’s attempted sale of military equipment to several actors, including ballistic missiles to Houthi forces in Yemen through Syria. North Korea also cooperates with the Scientific Studies and Research Center and the Army Supply Bureau in Syria, which is believed to work on Syria’s chemical weapons. The report finds that North Korea has employed sophisticated techniques to conceal its purchase of oil, which is capped by UN sanctions, and export of coal, which is banned. In particular, the report noted a “massive” increase in ship-to-ship transfers to evade these limitations.
In April, Japan and the United Kingdom detected and published details about an illegal ship-to-ship transfer in the East China Sea. The United Kingdom has deployed four ships to enforce sanctions against North Korea since 2018. “Sanctions will remain in place. The Royal Navy will keep enforcing them until we see concrete steps towards North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation,” UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said in the April 5 press release.
North Korea also opened a new border crossing with China in early April. The move by itself does not violate sanctions against North Korea, but without adequate checks, it could facilitate the flow of sanctioned goods. The new bridge opened April 8 over the Yalu River and connects the northeastern Chinese city of Jian with Manpo in North Korea.
What Comes Next in U.S.-North Korean Negotiations?
In a March 20 Arms Control Association Issue Brief, “What Comes Next in U.S.-North Korean Negotiations,” Kelsey Davenport and Alicia Sanders-Zakre outline a possible path forward for negotiations. The issue brief argues for establishing a more effective negotiating process and pursuing an incremental approach to negotiations.
While there appears to be disagreement over whether to begin with a more detailed definition of the end-state of negotiations, both the United States and North Korea still appear to be willing to work in phases toward that goal. The North Koreans have stated their preference for a step-by-step approach and the Trump administration appears to endorse incremental, parallel actions by both sides (excluding sanctions relief) to work toward more detailed, agreed-upon goals of the process.
Pursuing an all-or-nothing approach risks jeopardizing negotiations and losing the opportunity to take steps to reduce risks and ease tensions on the peninsula. Unlike a comprehensive "big" deal, a step-by-step approach builds confidence in the process and, if structured correctly, demonstrates to Kim that the survival of North Korea is not dependent on a nuclear arsenal. A place to start could be a deal exchanging the verified dismantlement of Yongbyon—a key North Korean nuclear site—for limited sanctions relief.
In order to reach agreement on such a deal, the United States and North Korea must empower working-level negotiating teams to hammer out the details and develop a roadmap for the future.
The full issue brief is available here.
BACKGROUNDER: North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs
During the Hanoi summit, Trump reportedly handed Kim a document calling on North Korea to transfer its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States, according to a document seen by Reuters. The paper Trump showed Kim also called on North Korea to declare its nuclear program, give full access to U.S. and international inspectors, stop all nuclear activities and the building of any new facilities, eliminate all nuclear infrastructure, and transition nuclear weapon scientists to commercial activities. The definition of “denuclearization” included in the document included full dismantlement of North Korea’s “chemical and biological warfare program and related dual-use capabilities.”
Bolton has also said publicly that the U.S. definition of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula includes the country’s chemical and biological weapons programs.
North Korea has never confirmed that it has a chemical weapons program, but the United States publicly accused North Korea of possessing chemical weapons and delivery systems in a 1979 Defense Intelligence Agency report. North Korea’s chemical weapons stockpile is estimated at 2,500 to 5,000 tons, deliverable by artillery, rocket launchers, ballistic missiles, and aircraft. North Korea is believed to possess nerve, blister, choking, and blood agents. North Korea proved that it possessed a sophisticated nerve agent when two agents of North Korea assassinated Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother, in February 2017 with VX, a highly potent nerve agent.
Still more secrecy shrouds North Korea’s biological weapons program, which Pyongyang denies exists. However, both South Korean and U.S. assessments conclude that North Korea has the capability to produce biological weapons. South Korea assesses that North Korean biological agents include anthrax, smallpox, and the plague and that North Korea may be able to weaponize them. However, there is still a significant amount of debate on the extent to which North Korea has weaponized biological agents, as well as North Korea’s means of delivering them.
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