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[Editorial] Risky approach

Trump’s ‘new method’ could give Pyongyang time to consolidate nuclear status

Momentum is building toward the resumption of denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea. At the same time, concerns are rising that US President Donald Trump might be willing to settle for a half-baked deal that could effectively grant the recalcitrant regime the status of a nuclear-armed state.

Trump said last week that a “new method would be very good” in breaking the impasse in negotiations with the North. He did not elaborate, but his remarks came as he criticized John Bolton, his hawkish former national security adviser, for advocating the Libyan model in talks with Pyongyang. He said Bolton’s mention of the Libyan model set back Washington’s diplomacy with North Korea “very badly.”

The Libyan model, which calls for the North to dismantle its nuclear arsenal before it can receive any concessions, has incurred the wrath of the isolated regime, which regards this approach as a threat to its survival.

Many observers here worry that Trump’s suggestion might reflect a change of stance to one that is more in tune with Pyongyang’s.

Earlier this month, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui offered to resume working-level talks with the US in late September, while demanding that Washington come up with new proposals “based on a calculation method acceptable to us.” Another senior official at Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry later said discussions on denuclearization would be possible only after threats and hurdles endangering the regime’s security and obstructing its development are fully removed.

Trump’s suggestion that the two sides adopt a new method was welcomed by the North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong-gil, as a “wise political decision” to approach US-North Korea relations from a more practical point of view. He said he believes the US leader implied that “a step-by-step solution starting with the feasible things first while building trust in each other would be the best option.”

The US State Department refrained from disputing his interpretation, simply reiterating that Washington was ready to resume talks with Pyongyang.

The denuclearization talks stalled after February’s summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi ended without a deal due to differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s measures to abandon its nuclear arms program and sanctions relief from Washington. Kim attempted to obtain substantial sanctions relief in return for dismantling the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, which constitutes just a part of Pyongyang’s weapons of mass destruction program.

The North’s call for a new calculation method might be seen as a repeat of the demand it made in Hanoi.

US officials have said they are pursuing the complete denuclearization of the Kim regime and there will be no sanctions relief until significant progress is made toward that goal.

But there is increasing worry that Trump might be ready to make concessions in order to secure a deal that he can boast about when he campaigns for reelection next year. Trump said last week that the planned negotiations might or might not work out. But his wish to strike a deal seemed evident from his remarks that North Korea has stopped testing nuclear weapons and the short-range missiles it has tested since May have been “pretty standard fare.” He asserted that his “very good relationship with Kim” was not only “positive” but also the best thing to have happened to the US in the past three years.

If the US agrees to a significant easing of sanctions against the North in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon facilities and freezing other parts of its nuclear program, the Kim regime could virtually gain recognition as a nuclear-armed state.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration should try to dissuade Trump from any move that might help Pyongyang buy time to consolidate its nuclear-armed posture. It is worrying that the Moon government seems preoccupied with facilitating US-North Korea talks, without setting its clear sights on the North’s complete denuclearization.

During his summit with Trump, set for New York on Monday (local time), Moon needs to refrain from proposing sanctions relief to help carry forward nuclear negotiations. Such a proposal could be hasty at this point, even if Trump’s recent moves portend changes in dealing with Pyongyang.

Trump may also demand a sharp increase in Seoul’s share of the costs of keeping US troops here in return for consent to easing sanctions against the North. It is advisable that the cost-sharing discussions during the summit be concluded with an agreement in principle to share the defense burden in a fair and appropriate manner.