North Korea Talks in ‘Holding Pattern’ Over Key Word, U.S. Envoy Says

Biegun admits the two sides still can’t agree on what “denuclearization” means.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun  attends a meeting with South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in Seoul on Feb. 9.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun attends a meeting with South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in Seoul on Feb. 9. Ed Jones/Pool via Getty Images)

A year after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inked a historic nuclear agreement in Singapore, the two sides have still not arrived at a shared definition of the key term in the accord, “denuclearization,” Stephen Biegun, the lead U.S. negotiator, said Wednesday.

The June 12, 2018, agreement committed North Korea “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Pyongyang has historically interpreted the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” to mean broader security concessions by the United States, including U.S. troop withdrawal. But in the aftermath of the summit, U.S. officials made clear that they interpreted the phrase differently, as a commitment by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, Biegun admitted that this gap has not been narrowed by negotiators and that it represents a key obstacle toward resuming progress in talks between the United States and North Korea.

“We don’t have that agreed definition of what denuclearization is,” Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, said, following remarks at the Atlantic Council think tank. Biegun, speaking at a symposium that brought together U.S. and South Korean officials, added: “We will never get to our destination if we don’t know where we are going.”  

It remains highly unclear whether diplomats will be able to bridge the divide between Washington and Pyongyang and arrive at a mutually acceptable definition of the term. According to an alleged North Korean document obtained by the U.S.-funded outlet Voice of America and described as a “a teaching guide for instructing top military officials on Pyongyang’s official internal position,” Kim aims to strike a final deal with the United States that recognizes his country as a “global nuclear strategic state.”

While the authenticity of that document has not been confirmed, that negotiating position would run counter to the United States’ most basic demands.

In separate remarks, Moon Chung-in, a special advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said on Wednesday that the United States should be more specific about what it can offer North Korea as part of its efforts to restart talks, and that it should do so quickly. “Time is on nobody’s side,” he said.

In contrast, Trump has frequently said he is in no hurry to complete a deal. “I’m in no rush. We’ll take it nice and easy,” he said last week.

Biegun, in his remarks on Wednesday, offered his most comprehensive account to date of the diplomatic back-and-forth between the United States and North Korea that has resulted in a pair of historic meetings between the two countries’ leaders but has failed to deliver concrete breakthroughs to limit the North Korean nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting sanctions on the country.

That stalemate in negotiations was on display most recently in February in Hanoi, when Trump and Kim walked away from a summit meeting after the U.S. delegation balked at a North Korean demand for wide-ranging sanctions relief in exchange for what the United States viewed as insufficient concessions on their nuclear program.

The failure at Hanoi was preceded by working-level meetings between Biegun and his North Korean counterparts that the U.S. envoy described as candid and productive. But the North Korean delegation was not authorized to discuss nuclear weapons issues, Biegun said.

Because of the sensitivity of that issue, the nuclear weapons portfolio was the sole preserve of Kim, and the inability of North Korean negotiators to address that subject set up the failure at Hanoi, Biegun said.  

In the four months since Hanoi, talks with North Korea have been in what Biegun described as a “holding pattern.” He said that while U.S. and North Korean representatives have not met, the two governments have exchanged messages both directly and indirectly.

Despite the failure at Hanoi, “the door is wide open for negotiations,” Biegun said.

Amid the lull in negotiations, conflicting reports have claimed that Biegun’s North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok Chol, was executed or imprisoned, and Biegun said Wednesday that he had no insight into the diplomat’s fate.

Biegun said he was encouraged by developments in recent weeks, citing Kim’s recent letter to Trump—described by the president as “very beautiful”—a recent meeting at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korean officials, and this week’s summit meeting between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In an op-ed published on the front page of Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s largest state newspaper, Xi wrote that he supports the current effort to resolve the nuclear crisis on the peninsula through dialogue. Xi and Trump are expected to meet at the G-20 summit in Japan later this month

Past rounds of negotiations with North Korea have relied on working-level talks between career diplomats to iron out details and arrive at an agreement before more senior officials are brought in to seal agreements. The most recent round of talks between the United States and North Korea has upended that strategy, relying on high-profile meetings between Moon Jae-in and Kim and Kim and Trump to generate momentum and broad agreements.

Biegun argued on Wednesday that working-level talks need to play a greater role moving forward if the diplomatic opening between Washington and Pyongyang is to regain momentum. When and if working-level talks resume between the Untied States and North Korea, the North’s representatives must be “be empowered to talk about all issues,” Biegun said, though he added that wasn’t a precondition to talks.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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