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Biegun says U.S. looking for nuke ‘freeze’: Report

July 04,2019
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, indicated that the United States is willing to accept a nuclear “freeze” by Pyongyang during denuclearization negotiations, according to a report Wednesday, signaling more flexibility than hard-liners in the administration.

While Washington has maintained that it wants complete denuclearization of North Korean, Axios reported that Biegun told reporters off the record Sunday that what the administration is “looking for is a complete freeze of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs.”

Biegun reportedly told reporters aboard a plane flight back to Washington from Seoul Sunday that while the United States isn’t ready to lift the sanctions against North Korea if it freezes its weapons program, it could give other concessions, such as humanitarian relief and improved diplomatic ties.

The remarks came immediately after the impromptu third meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump at the truce village of Panmunjom at the inter-Korean border on Sunday afternoon. Trump had been on a two-day visit to Seoul for a summit with President Moon Jae-in, and the abrupt reunion at the DMZ restarted denuclearization talks, which have been at an impasse since the second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam on Feb. 28.

The United States hasn’t abandoned its goal of “complete denuclearization,” Biegun said, but indicated he was open to some give and take along the way to that goal.

Axios reported citing two sources familiar with his remarks that Biegun said Washington wants “a freeze and an idea of an end state,” and that “within that we have a discussion of a roadmap” toward denuclearization.

John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, is considered the main hard-liner in the Trump administration. On Monday, Bolton lashed out in a tweet against a New York Times report on Sunday that the United States may settle for a nuclear freeze by North Korea in new talks.

Kim in Hanoi offered to dismantle its key Yongbyon nuclear complex, but Trump, who had pushed for a so-called “big deal,” said that was not enough to ease some of the sanctions on North Korea. The North Korean and U.S. leaders agreed during their latest meeting to resume working-level denuclearization talks, and Trump named U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to helm the revived denuclearization negotiations.

Analysts have pointed to a possibility that Washington may consider a new, more flexible denuclearization scenario in negotiations with the North. But Bolton’s tweet on Monday said the U.S. National Security Council has not “discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze’” by North Korea, calling it “a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”

Axios likewise reported that despite a consensus on the end goal of complete denuclearization, senior officials have different opinions on the best way to reach that goal.

This report, citing one source, said Biegun indicated that “in the abstract” Washington is not interested in sanctions relief before denuclearization but that there are “things we can do in the meantime,” including concessions such as humanitarian aid, “expanded people-to-people talks” and a “presence in each other’s capitals.”

“Let’s say they give us 20 nuclear weapons,” Biegun was quoted as saying according to notes from a source. “What can we get? I’m confident that I’d go to” the secretary of state and “he’d go to the president and he would consider that.”

North Korea has continued to emphasize security guarantees from the United States in the negotiation process, something also highlighted in the first Kim-Trump summit on June 12, 2018.

Trump, after becoming the first sitting U.S. president to step over to the North Korean border, told U.S. troops at Osan Air Base in Gyeonggi on Sunday “we’re now going to work on something” and said he put Pompeo “in charge.”

Trump added that he “outlined the incredible prosperity that awaits North Korea when this whole thing gets settled” to Kim during their “productive” meeting.

As Kim and Trump agreed to resume working-level meetings over the next several weeks, there is mounting speculation as to whether North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and Pompeo will follow up by meeting on the sidelines of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in Thailand.

The 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations and partners will gather for a meeting of foreign ministers and other events in Bangkok from July 31 to Aug. 3, one of the few international forums that North Korea regularly partakes in.

The U.S. State Department in a press release on Tuesday also noted that Trump and Kim “agreed to resume working-level negotiations between the United States and North Korea” during their meeting.

Trump, it added, remains committed to achieving the goals set at the June 12, 2018 summit in Singapore described as “transforming U.S.-DPRK relations, building lasting peace, and complete denuclearization of the DPRK.” DPRK is the acronym of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

On the results of the summit between Moon and Trump, the State Department stressed that the strong South Korea-U.S. alliance “is the linchpin of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.”

It said that the two countries reaffirmed their “unbreakable bond,” adding the leaders took steps to deepen their security, economic, scientific, health and cultural cooperation in the region.

Moon and Trump further committed to “achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and to the full implementation of UN [United Nations] Security Council resolutions.”

The press release broke down the summit results into “commitment to peace,” focusing on the North Korea issue; “deepening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” on Trump’s strategy toward the region; “alliance forged in blood,” focusing on defense cooperation; and “mutually reinforcing prosperity,” emphasizing trade relations.

Moon has previously been hesitant to publicly sign onto Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is seen as a policy to contain China.

The two sides also “acknowledged the importance of exercises and training programs,” the release said, to maintain combined Korea-U.S. “military readiness.” The leaders also agreed on trilateral security cooperation with Japan.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]