The US has said it is ready to “immediately” restart stalled negotiations with North Korea about nuclear disarmament in light of agreements reached at a summit of the two Koreas in Pyongyang.
At that meeting, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, promised to dismantle a missile engine test site and launch pad, and made a conditional offer to shut down his country’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said on Wednesday he had invited his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong-ho, to meet in New York next week where both diplomats will be attending the UN general assembly. Other North Korean officials have been asked to meet US special envoy, Stephen Biegun, in Vienna.
Donald Trump also welcomed this week’s Pyongyang meeting between Kim and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.
“We’re making tremendous progress with respect to North Korea,” Trump told reporters, adding: “We have a lot of very good things going.”
In a written statement, Pompeo said: “This will mark the beginning of negotiations to transform US-DPRK relations through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
Since Trump declared North Korea “no longer a nuclear threat” following his own summit with Kim in Singapore in June, progress in disarmament negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang has stalled, as it has become clear the two leaders had very different conceptions of what the process would entail.
Observers noted on Wednesday that Pompeo was similarly exaggerating what Kim had agreed on Tuesday in Pyongyang.
In a joint declaration, it was agreed that the two sides would “cooperate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”.
For Pyongyang, the phrase signifies a phased process of mutual confidence building and arms control that would involve significant US concessions, not unilateral disarmament by Pyongyang. There was no mention of a deadline, as Pompeo had claimed.
At his summit this week with Moon, Kim agreed to complete the dismantlement of a missile engine test and launch site in the north-west of the country, something he had previously offered to do in Singapore.
The secretary of state also noted that Kim had undertaken to dismantle facilities at Yongbyon “in the presence of US and IAEA inspectors”.
That would be a more dramatic step, although one that Pyongyang has partly carried out before, blowing up a reactor cooling tower 10 years ago. However, in the joint declaration in Pyongyang, Kim does not mention inspectors and makes the offer to dismantle Yongbyon contingent on the US taking “corresponding measures”.
In Pyongyang, Kim did not make clear what those measures should be, but points towards an earlier joint declaration by Kim and Moon, which talks about a formal declaration of an end to the Korean war and eventually a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice.
“The North Koreans want reciprocal action. What is that reciprocal action? They don’t specify so we don’t know,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former senior CIA Korea analyst now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “It is more than a peace declaration – a peace treaty, we have a problem.”
“I don’t think this really moves the ball forward,” Terry said. “The different definitions of denuclearization are still there.”
When asked about what concessions the US might make to North Korea, Trump replied: “Well, we’ll see what he’s looking at. We’ll see. But in the meantime, we’re talking. It’s very calm. He’s calm; I’m calm. So we’ll see what happens.”
Jung Pak, another former US intelligence official noted the Pyongyang declaration had come on the anniversary of a 2005 multilateral agreement in which North Korea had “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”.
“We should recognise that 13 years ago, they agreed to far bigger concessions then,” Pak, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said. “Kim is trying to turn back the clock and set the terms of what he is willing to talk about. These are minuscule moves on Kim’s part and we should treat them accordingly.”
In contrast to the vague undertaking on denuclearization, the military annex to the Pyongyang declarations included very detailed steps both North and South Korea are to take to reduce the chance of any unintended border incident escalating into war.
Areas around the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas are to be declared no-fly zones, the defence forces of both sides are to follow multi-step protocols to defuse border incidents, and guard posts along the DMZ are to be withdrawn.
“Lessening the danger of a conventional military confrontation, which could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons is essential,” said Joel Wit, a former state department official and senior fellow at the Stimson Centre think tank. “The agreement reached at the Moon-Kim summit, which begins to move away from 60 years of confrontation since the Korean War, is a first step in that direction.”
Kim and Moon also agreed on measures to revive economic cooperation, that could run afoul of Washington’s efforts to maintain sanctions on North Korea.
“The 600lb gorilla in the room is sanctions,” Victor Cha, a former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. “South Korea is promising all of these goodies to the North but can’t do any of it with sanctions in place – the subtext is clear, Seoul is going to approach the US to lift sanctions so it can pursue the inter-Korean peace, but the sanctions are on the regime for denuclearization and human rights abuses. Crossed lines that look like we are headed for a train wreck.”
Cha said the progress in Pyongyang towards denuclearization was minimal.
“Trump is praising it all which is astounding to me,” Cha, now at CSIS said. “You have a president taking credit for things that have not yet happened [denuclearization] and a DPRK leader agreeing to do what he has already done with the South Koreans applauding it as new.”
Joseph Yun, a former US special envoy on North Korea, said that while vague and conditional, Kim’s offer to dismantle Yongbyon, at least offered a route out of the current impasse in nuclear negotiations.
“It opens the door a little bit,” Yun, now a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace, said. “It could be the beginning of a process.
“I would very much hope that Washington would respond constructively to this opening.”