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Inter-Korean summit kick-starts stalled nuclear talks

The US said it is prepared to resume talks with North Korea after the North agreed to dismantle its key missile facility and potentially its main nuclear complex at this week’s inter-Korean summit, kick-starting stalled denuclearization negotiations.

At his third meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim agreed to permanently dismantle the Tongchang-ri missile testing site in the presence of international experts, and suggested the North would permanently destroy the Yongbyon nuclear complex if the US took corresponding measures.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had invited North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho to meet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week, with the aim of completing the North’s denuclearization by January 2021.

Pompeo also said Pyongyang’s representatives have been invited to hold talks with the US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, in Vienna, Austria, “at the earliest opportunity.”

The Vienna meeting will mark “the beginning of negotiations to transform US-DPRK relations through the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim, and to construct a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” said Pompeo in a statement, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

Despite skepticism that Kim’s commitment falls short of a meaningful denuclearization step, US President Donald Trump also struck an optimistic tone, describing Kim’s pledges as “tremendous progress” and “very good news.”

Washington’s reaction heralds a breakthrough in the stalled denuclearization talks with North Korea. Their talks to follow through on Kim’s pledge to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at the Singapore summit in June made little progress, with the countries divided over what the denuclearization process entails.

The ball appears to be in Washington’s court as North Korea has expressed willingness to permanently dismantle its main nuclear complex, Yongbyon, if the US takes corresponding measures.

It is unclear what “corresponding steps” North Korea wants from the US.

Declaring an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which the North has demanded from the US as a first step toward building trust and ending mutual hostilities, could be one of those measures, according to South Korea’s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong.

“We’re talking about a package that would carry many elements, including the declaration of the facilities, Yongbyon and Tongchang-ri, (which the US demands.) What North Korea wants -- such as the end-of-war declaration, normalization of relations and easing of sanctions -- are also on the table,” an official from Seoul’s Foreign Ministry told reporters on condition of anonymity.  

“Corresponding measures are a lot more complicated than you might think,” the official said. “There are times when what North Korea wants and its priorities are different from ours.”

Upon his return to Seoul on Thursday, Moon said that North Korea taking steps to denuclearize in return for corresponding measures was up to “negotiations between North Korea and the US.”

“Chairman Kim said he was looking forward to Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea and that he hopes to hold a second summit with Trump in the near future so that denuclearization can proceed swiftly,“ Moon said at a press briefing. “I believe conditions for the resumption of North Korea-US talks have been established.”

South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Lee Do-hoon, touted the outcome of the inter-Korean summit as “breaking the standoff” in denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US.

“As North Korea talked about irreversible dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, it is time to discuss how it can be done specifically through diplomatic negotiations,” he said.

Moon is scheduled to leave for New York on Sunday. Moon is to meet with Trump on Monday in New York to brief him on the outcome of the inter-Korean summit, which he hopes will pave the way for the second summit between North Korea and the US.

The prospects of the second North Korea-US summit have been greatly improved, with the stalemate in the denuclearization talks between them having been resolved to some extent, experts said.

Speaking at a forum in Seoul on Thursday, Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, and Woo Jung-yeop, a senior researcher from the Sejong Institute, said the summit would be held “100 percent.” 

If held, it is likely to take place before the midterm elections in November as Trump, who faces negative publicity at home, would want to use the second summit to sway public sentiment in his favor, they said.

“The (Trump) administration, everybody understands that now is the time,” Kazianis told The Korea Herald on the sidelines of the forum.

“I really do think there is going to be a summit. I think Trump understands he will get maximum benefits from it (the summit) and Kim understands he can get maximum concessions from Trump right now.”

(laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)
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