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US-NK summit prep talks continue at Panmunjeom

With the North Korea-US summit back on, the two countries continued their working-level talks to settle agenda items at the border village of Panmunjeom on Monday in a last-ditch effort to close the gaps on the denuclearization process ahead of the June 12 meeting.

In Singapore, officials from the US and North Korea -- led by the White House’s deputy chief of staff for operations Joe Hagin and North Korea’s de facto chief of staff Kim Chang Son -- reportedly wrapped up their meetings to hammer out logistical details for the high-stakes summit. The talks had been held since Friday.

A team of US diplomats was seen going through security checks at the military guard point leading to Panmunjeom around 9:30 a.m. Monday. They held talks for about 1 1/2 hours at Tongilgak on the North Korean side of Panmunjeom. 

Led by Sung Kim, US ambassador to the Philippines and former US ambassador to South Korea, the US delegation held the negotiations for the third consecutive day with the North Korean delegation headed by North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.

The working-level talks, which first took place on May 27, continued Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

The meetings were being held while Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, was visiting the US in preparation for the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Yong-chol met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and hand-delivered a letter directly from Kim Jong-un to Trump.

At Panmunjeom, the two sides appeared to focus on narrowing their differences over how Pyongyang should achieve complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization and what the US should give in return to guarantee the North Korean regime’s security.

The two sides seem to have reached a broad agreement on their shared goal of denuclearization in a short, compressed period of time, possibly by 2020, but they seem to be trying to work out what could be front-loaded in the denuclearization process at the working-level talks.

This combined file photo shows Sung Kim (L), US ambassador to the Philippines, and North Korea`s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. (Yonhap)
This combined file photo shows Sung Kim (L), US ambassador to the Philippines, and North Korea`s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui. (Yonhap)

Analysts say the US wants North Korea to agree to ship some of its nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles out of the country within months -- a result that could be enough for Trump to claim a victory ahead of the US midterm elections in November. 

North Korea, in return, is thought to want the US to relieve sanctions against it, remove it from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, and begin steps to open diplomatic relations with the communist state -- a result that could be considered a win by the North’s leader ahead of the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding in September.

The two sides could also discuss the issue of declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which is widely seen as the first step that the US could take to give the North a security guarantee. Trump said it could be discussed prior to the summit. 

“It seems like that the US is insisting on its way of North Korea’s denuclearization – allowing unconditional inspection into North Korea’s nuclear facilities and transferring parts of nuclear warheads, nuclear material and ICBMs out of the country -- and urging the North to make a bold decision,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“In return, the US seems to be offering to accept more of the North’s demands such as declaring an end to the Korean War and taking a step-by-step approach in the denuclearization process,” he said.

Trump appears to be conceding that North Korea will not agree to immediately give up its nuclear weapons, saying that there could be more than one meeting with North Korea and that North Korea could take its time in the denuclearization process. 

“I think it’s going to be a process,” he said, following his meeting with Kim Yong-chol.

It is a shift from the speedy, “all-in-one” denuclearization the US has demanded from North Korea. North Korea has demanded a “phased and synchronized” approach.

“Meetings to adjust agenda items will likely continue to be held at Panmunjeom or elsewhere until the summit next week,” Shin said. 

Meanwhile, the US team in Singapore ended weeklong discussions with North Korean officials last week and had finalized logistical details for the summit, which played a key role in giving Trump the confidence to reinstate the summit on Friday, CNN reported, citing a senior White House official.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha held phone conversations with her US counterpart Mike Pompeo and Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan, respectively, earlier in the day to discuss preparations for the upcoming North Korea-US summit.

By Ock Hyun-ju (