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Trump to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at end of February, White House says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/18/2019 John Hudson, David Nakamura, Simon Denyer
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The White House announced Friday that President Trump would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late February as the two sides seek to jumpstart nuclear talks that have bogged down since their first historic meeting last year.

The news came after Trump met for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office with Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief who has served as Pyongyang’s lead negotiator.

Trump “looks forward to meeting with Chairman Kim at a place to be announced at a later date,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. One location that has been strongly considered is Danang, Vietnam, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Friday marked the second time Trump has welcomed Kim Yong Chol, who was reported to be delivering a letter from Pyongyang. He also visited Trump in the Oval Office in June to seal plans for the first summit later that month in Singapore.

Before arriving at the White House, Kim Yong Chol met for less than an hour with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a hotel in Dupont Circle. Their discussion aimed to reinvigorate the negotiations that have been stalled for months over a U.S. demand that North Korea provide a detailed inventory of its nuclear and missile programs.

After Kim’s visit to the White House, he and the rest of the North Korean delegation were scheduled to join Pompeo at the State Department for lunch.

In this file photo taken on July 6, 2018 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (back R) and North Korea's director of the United Front Department, Kim Yong Chol (front C) arrive for a meeting at the Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang. © Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images In this file photo taken on July 6, 2018 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (back R) and North Korea's director of the United Front Department, Kim Yong Chol (front C) arrive for a meeting at the Park Hwa Guest House in Pyongyang. Pyongyang has insisted that the United States lift economic sanctions on North Korea and offer a security guarantee to the isolated regime before any further concessions.

With little progress on the technical end of the negotiations among lower-ranking diplomats, the fate of the talks may rely on Trump changing the current trajectory of the talks in interactions with senior North Korean officials.

For Trump, a second summit could help him make the case that his top foreign policy initiative is paying fruit and divert attention from his rapidly expanding political troubles at home. The president is embroiled in an increasingly nasty public fight with congressional Democrats as a partial government shutdown over funding for his proposed border wall reaches the four-week mark. And the White House has been rocked by new revelations in the special counsel investigation into Russia’s election interference.

U.S. officials want the North to start treating the American envoy for the talks, Stephen Biegun, seriously. The North has repeatedly turned down meetings between him and his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Choi Sun Hee. If the talks go well on Friday, Biegun is expected meet Choi for follow-up negotiations in Stockholm over the weekend.

Trump has been upbeat about a second round of face-to-face negotiations with Kim, touting personal letters from the North Korean leader as progress, despite a lack of measurable steps toward disarmament.

“With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue,” Trump said Jan. 6. “I’m going to not go any further than that. I’m just going to say it’s very special. And anybody else but me, you’d be in war right now.”

In Seoul, there is a strong feeling that the U.S. side will come to the table offering a more flexible approach than before and that Washington is coming around to the idea that both sides need to offer concessions in a phased process; otherwise this simply isn’t going to work.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at a news conference Wednesday that her government’s approach is to secure a “comprehensive deal toward complete denuclearization” of the North and a “phased implementation.” She said Washington “also shares considerably” this approach.

Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s Day speech that the North Korea might be forced to follow a new path if the United States maintains sanctions and demands unilateral action from Pyongyang. But Kim also said the improvement in relations could accelerate if the United States takes “corresponding actions.”

Kim also told South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year he was prepared to permanently close the Yongbyon nuclear processing site if the United States takes “corresponding steps.”

The question is what the United States is prepared to offer.

“Between South Korea and the United States, we are closely consulting what kinds of denuclearization measures should be followed and what the United States and the international community can do as corresponding measures,” Kang said.

Corresponding measures could include a declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, humanitarian aid or a “permanent North-U. S. dialogue channel,” said Kang. (One suggestion is that the two countries open liaison offices in each other’s capitals.)

“There have been various discussions on corresponding measures, but ultimately, it is something that the United States has to provide, and North Korea has to accept this,” she added.

In responding to Kim’s demands for sanctions relief, one approach could be to suspend or partially roll back some of the sanctions that were imposed by the UNSC United Nations Security Council in 2017 in return for North Korea steps to denuclearize. Another approach would be to grant exemptions for specific projects: Moon’s government is hoping to build road and rail links between the two Koreas and also wants work to resume at a shuttered joint economic zone at Kaesong and a joint tourism project at Mount Kumgang in the North.

In terms of what North Korea is prepared to offer: Kim has made it clear he doesn’t want to provide a list of nuclear and missile sites, because he thinks that is tantamount to providing a list of targets. Some experts think this is unacceptable, and that the United States and South Korea should maintain this demand. Others are trying to find ways around it.

First, most experts say, it is important to get North Korea to commit to a definition of what the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” means, and agree to a detailed road map of how to get there.

A road map might, for example, mean starting by dismantling facilities that allow North Korea to expand its stock of fissile material and nuclear weapons in the future (such as at Yongbyon as well as testing sites), before later steps whereby existing stocks of fissile material and ultimately weapons are dismantled, in return for phased concessions.

South Korean ruling party lawmaker Lee soo-hyuck, who led South Korea’s negotiations with the North a decade and a half ago, said he met Biegun last December, and proposed such a road map. He says Biegun told him the U.S.-proposed road map is “almost the same.”

But there is real concern also that Moon and Trump have not asked Kim to spell out exactly what he means by denuclearization and whether he is ultimately demanding the United States withdraw its forces from South Korea and nuclear-armed submarines and bombers from the region. If so, they are dodging a key question that gets to the heart of whether a deal is even possible, experts say.

john.hudson@washpost.com

david.nakamura@washpost.com

simon.denyer@washpost.com

Denyer reported from Tokyo.

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