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Sanctions relief plan is reviewed by Trump gov’t

July 12,2019
The Donald Trump administration is reviewing a plan for the closure of North Korea’s key Yongbyon complex and a complete freeze of its nuclear program in return for a temporary easing of sanctions on coal and textiles, said a source in Washington Wednesday.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, has been “reviewing” a plan in which North Korea would allow inspections by international experts and the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, and in turn be granted between 12 to 18 months of suspension of sanctions on North Korea’s exports of coal and textiles, the source familiar with White House affairs told several media outlets, including the JoongAng Ilbo.

The source said that the White House and U.S. negotiating team is also considering a peace declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice agreement, and installing a liaison office.

Exports of North Korean coal and textiles have been banned under United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions, and easing of those sanctions could bring in up to $2 billion of cash in yearly revenues for Pyongyang.

This proposal is seen as an indication that the Trump administration may plan inspections and the shutting down of the Yongbyon complex in North Pyongan Province before the U.S. presidential elections in November 2020.

If Biegun makes such a proposal in working-level negotiations with his North Korean counterparts, the Trump administration would essentially be accepting for the first time the easing of some sanctions before the complete denuclearization of North Korea.

Washington will in turn have in place a “snapback” clause enabling the reinstating of sanctions if the North restarts nuclear activities.

“Should North Korea use any deceptions, there will be a snapback mechanism of sorts putting back in place sanctions,” said the source. “If this model is effective, it can be applied in the next stage for nuclear facilities other than Yongbyon, such as Kangson, and the process toward complete denuclearization can happen in a phased manner.”

A uranium enrichment plant in Kangson, Chollima District, Nampo City, is another facility that has been on Washington’s radar.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump held an impromptu third summit in the border village of Panmunjom on June 30, agreeing to resume negotiations within the next several weeks. Nuclear negotiations had been at an impasse since their failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28.

The source said that the plan can be considered “a comprehensive deal to move on to the next stage, as well as a test of sorts to see if the North Korean leader’s pledge to denuclearize can be trusted while maintaining the frame of maximum pressure.”

Yet rather than a proposal meant to draw a reaction from Pyongyang before working-level meetings on denuclearization, it could also be a means of first testing domestic waters in the United States.

The White House and U.S. State Department officially maintain that there will be no sanctions relief until the complete denuclearization of North Korea. The second North-U.S. summit in Hanoi collapsed after Washington insisted on a so-called big deal, calling for steps beyond the dismantlement of Yongbyon, while Pyongyang demanded the partial easing of sanctions along the way.

However, following Kim and Trump’s surprise meeting in Panmunjom, there has been mounting speculation that Washington may compromise and agree on an interim deal or a so-called small deal.

Realistically, there is very little likelihood that North Korea would be willing to agree on a comprehensive deal that includes giving up all its weapons of mass destruction including ballistic missiles and chemical and biological weapons from the get-go, especially with so little trust built with Washington.

Trump told reporters after meeting with Kim on June 30 that “sanctions remain,” but “at some point during the negotiations things can happen.”

UN Security Council Resolution 2371, adopted in August 2017, banned exports of North Korean coal, iron and iron ore, a response to Pyongyang’s launching of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) the previous month on July 4. North Korean minerals including coal made up over 42 percent of its exports in 2016 before the ban. UN Security Council Resolution 2375, adopted in September 2017, a week after Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, imposed a ban on exports of North Korean textiles, the country’s second-biggest export after coal.

Yet a temporary suspension of these sanctions could bring about domestic backlash for Trump. A diplomatic source requesting anonymity said, “It could be about checking North Korea’s reaction on a tactical level of negotiations, but should an official proposal be made, there could be quite some backlash domestically if there is a perception that there is an easing of maximum pressure and concessions are being made.”

BY JUNG HYO-SIK, SARAH KIM[kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]