As a door opens slightly for U.S.-North Korea diplomacy to resume, the Trump administration should consider adopting a flexible step-by-step approach toward the full denuclearization of North Korea starting with freezing its fissile material production, said experts.
“I think it’s important Washington become more realistic,” said Robert Einhorn, a former special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control at the State Department and a current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “I think it is necessary to compensate North Korean at each step of the way, but the compensation should only be worth what the North Koreans would [be prepared] to put on the table.”
After months of stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have been exchanging letters this month.
Positive response to letters
Both leaders responded positively to each other’s letter, planting hope that there may be a break in the deadlocked talks. On Monday, Trump said he sent a “very friendly letter” to Kim in response to what he described as Kim’s “beautiful letter” he received earlier this month.
Over the weekend, Kim said he received an “excellent” letter from Trump and would “seriously contemplate” the content of the letter, according to North Korean state media KCNA. The contents of the letters have not been made public.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday the U.S. is “literally prepared to begin at a moment’s notice” to restart talks with North Korea when Pyongyang indicates it is prepared to discuss denuclearization.
Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since their Hanoi summit held in February. Trump denied Kim’s demand to end sanctions for offering to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Trump instead requested Kim to take full denuclearization prior to sanctions relief.
For the nuclear stalemate to break, experts said Washington needs to take more flexible approach than it had at Hanoi.
“There’s always some possibility for dramatic summitry, but to be reasonably successful, the Trump administration would have to soften its position considerably,” said Douglas Paal, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
For the consummation of a denuclearization deal, Einhorn said Washington should take a step-by step approach or incremental, phased approach toward North Korea. The approach, favored by North Korea, involves matching each of Pyongyang’s denuclearization steps with some corresponding reward until full dismantlement of its nuclear program is completed.
To begin, he said, the U.S. should ask North Korea to do something larger than just dismantling Yongbyon and instead Pyongyang to freeze its fissile material production. Dismantling Yongbyon is too small a step to generate a meaningful reward from the U.S., according to Einhorn.
“It would be desirable to go back to the North and ask for something beyond Yongbyon, not something as grandiose as complete elimination of its [weapons of mass destruction] programs, but a step to put a cap on their production of fissile material, a ban on their production of fissile material nationwide,” said Einhorn.
Fissile material is the key ingredient in nuclear bombs. Nuclear explosions are created when fissile material releases energy in an incredibly fast chain reaction. Yongbyon is a site for North Korea’s major nuclear reactors capable of producing fissile material. North Korea is believed to have other fissile producing reactors spread throughout the country.
Einhorn said step-by-step denuclearization talks need to take place within working-level meetings initiated by a presidential letter.
He said one positive use of presidential letters is for Trump to write to Kim saying, “‘I’m sending my representative, Steve Beigun, to meet with his counterpart, and you can be assured that the ideas that Mr. Biegun will put on the table are the ones I personally endorse.’” The letter would continue, “’And I hope that you give them favorable consideration.’”
North Korea has been reluctant to hold working-level talks and Kim prefers to deal with Trump directly.
Traveling to Seoul
U.S. Special Representative Steve Biegun will travel to Seoul on Thursday to meet with South Korean officials ahead of Pompeo and Trump’s arrival later in the week. After attending the global leadership gathering at the G-20 summit this week in Japan, Trump plans to have a two-day meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in starting Saturday.
Earlier in the month, Biegun said Washington and Pyongyang both understand the “need for a flexible approach” when he gave a speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. He said, “This is the only way to move forward to diplomacy.”
It is not clear whether his statements imply that Washington will compromise its Hanoi position, but Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said it could be a hint of “movement toward breaking the diplomatic stalemate.”
Prior to the Hanoi summit, Biegun suggested that Washington could take a step-by-step denuclearization toward North Korea during a speech at Stanford University in February. He said the U.S. is prepared to take commitments it made with North Korea at the Singapore summit last year “simultaneously and in parallel” fashion.
The approach, however, did not materialize at the Hanoi summit.