US dispatches army of envoys to salvage North Korea talks

American and North Korean officials met at the border between North and South Korea in preparation for a possible North Korea-US summit, as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was cited as reaffirming his commitment to meet with US President Donald Trump.
The American team, led by Mr Sung Kim (left), met with Ms Choe Son Hui, the North Korean vice foreign minister, who said last week that Pyongyang was "reconsidering" the talks.
The American team, led by Mr Sung Kim (left), met with Ms Choe Son Hui, the North Korean vice foreign minister, who said last week that Pyongyang was "reconsidering" the talks.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS) - The United States and North Korea on Sunday (May 27) kicked off an urgent, behind-the-scenes effort to resurrect a summit meeting between their two leaders by June 12, racing to develop a joint agenda and dispel deep scepticism about the chances for reaching a framework for a lasting nuclear agreement in so little time.

Technical and diplomatic experts from the United States made a rare visit to North Korea to meet with their counterparts, US officials said on Sunday.

Before any summit meeting, the American team, led by Mr Sung Kim, a veteran diplomat, is seeking detailed commitments from Mr Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, about his regime's willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

In a tweet on Sunday night, President Donald Trump confirmed the meetings in the North Korean part of Panmunjom, a "truce village" in the Demilitarised Zone that separates the two Koreas.

He also expressed his administration's newfound optimism about the meeting, further embracing the conciliatory language both sides have used since he cancelled the planned meeting on Thursday.

"I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial Nation one day," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter after a second straight day of golf at his Virginia club.

"Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!"

White House officials said Mr Joe Hagin, a deputy White House chief of staff, is leading a separate delegation in Singapore, where the summit meeting had been scheduled to take place, to work out logistics: when the various meetings would take place, how much would be open to the press, which officials would be in the negotiating rooms, and how to handle security concerns.

Others in the delegation include special assistant to the president Patrick Clifton,  director of presidential advance Bobby Peede, staffers Bill Hughes, Ben Miller, Hannah Salem and Rebecca Wasserstein.

Mr Sung Kim is the diplomat leading the American team to North Korea. Mr Sung Kim, who has been involved in denuclearisation talks with North Korea in the past, was called in from his post as envoy to the Philippines to lead the preparations, according to a person familiar with the arrangements.

“It’s a good thing to have him onboard,” said a former senior South Korean official who worked with Mr Sung Kim in past.“He’s capable, level-headed, cautious, and has solid grasp of the issues and knows North Koreans well. But at the same time he has healthy scepticism.”

The simultaneous negotiations in the DMZ and in Singapore signalled an accelerated effort by the governments in both countries to complete the preparations required to get the meeting back on track.

Such issues would typically be handled by a well-established diplomatic process of lower-level negotiations that usually takes months, if not years, before a meeting between the leaders of two nations.

But Mr Trump short-circuited that process in March, when he abruptly accepted an invitation to meet with Mr Kim .

Now, after just as abruptly cancelling the summit meeting, Mr Trump has - wittingly or not - set in motion a more normal set of discussions to lay the groundwork for an agreement about North Korea's nuclear weapons programme before a decision on whether to hold a meeting between the two leaders after all.

The timeline is still extraordinarily condensed. Mr Trump's repeatedly stated desire to keep June 12 as a possible date for a summit meeting means that officials on both sides are rushing to see if the necessary preparations can be completed in a matter of days.

 
 
 

Veteran negotiators said it remained unclear whether the two sides could complete enough work to make a meeting possible.

"The President says he's not going to go until there is substantial agreement. The question is, is there time to reach that kind of agreement?" said Mr Joseph Yun, a former chief North Korea negotiator at the State Department, who retired in part because of his frustration with his agency's diminished role.

"Right now, the summit is kind of teetering on whether we make progress on those things."

Analysts welcomed the news the United States had dispatched a team of seasoned negotiators. 

 “Sending such an experienced and professional team signals that the Trump administration is getting serious about the specifics of an agreement,” said former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia, Abraham Denmark.

 “It’s also an implicit acknowledgment that running this negotiation out of the Oval Office has not worked, and that lower-level officials are needed to work out the details before a summit can take place.” 

Still, with only a few weeks left until the scheduled summit, such talks are unlikely to reconcile the differing positions over Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, he said.

 “No matter how experienced and knowledgeable these officials are, they will not be able to change the fundamental challenge between the United States and North Korea over its status as a nuclear power.” 

Two top Republican lawmakers expressed deep misgivings on Sunday about the prospects for a successful summit meeting in just over two weeks, and warned that Mr Kim would never agree to give up the nuclear weapons his country has spent decades developing.

"I remain convinced that he does not want to denuclearise, in fact he will not denuclearise," Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said on ABC's This Week.

He dismissed demonstrations of goodwill by Mr Kim - including the release of American prisoners and the destruction of a nuclear test site - as meaningless.

"It's all a show," Mr Rubio said. "It's a show."

Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, echoed Mr Rubio's concerns.

He said on NBC's Meet the Press that a freeze of the country's weapons programme would be progress, but added that "a lot of us have been sceptical that North Korea will ever agree to total denuclearisation".

Veterans of past negotiations with North Korea also expressed concern on Sunday about the possibility that Mr Kim could demand that in exchange for denuclearisation, the United States must withdraw its "nuclear umbrella" that protects South Korea from adversaries.

Mr James Clapper Jr, the former director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, who spent part of his early intelligence career in South Korea, said on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday that such a demand could mean the United States would have to agree not to fly its nuclear-capable bombers "in the Korean peninsula or in operational proximity".

It is unclear if Mr Trump would ever agree to significant restrictions on the US nuclear arsenal.

US officials have said the discussions are progressing well, offering the same kind of optimistic assessment that Mr Trump has delivered over the past 48 hours.

In brief remarks to reporters on Saturday night, the President said the lower-level negotiations are "going along very well", though he added his usual caveat: "We'll see what happens."

On the Korean peninsula, a surprise meeting between Mr Kim and President Moon Jae In of South Korea also produced some progress toward a meeting.

Mr Moon said Mr Kim wanted to discuss "complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula" with Mr Trump.

"What is not so clear to him is how firmly he can trust the United States' commitment to ending hostile relations and providing security guarantees for his government, should it denuclearise," Mr Moon said on Sunday at a news conference in Seoul, the South Korean capital, the day after the meeting on the North Korean side of Panmunjom.

The answer to that question may hinge on the lower-level discussions going on between representatives of the two countries, a fraught process that can sometimes dissolve into disagreement and at other times produce halting progress toward a meeting.

Administration officials say they are under no illusions that the team now in North Korea can negotiate the details to begin to dismantle the sprawling nuclear, missile and biological weapons programmes in North Korea - all of which were part of the objective Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out recently for the talks.

In the case of the Iran deal, a detailed plan struck in 2015 that Mr Trump abandoned this month as insufficient, the negotiations took more than two years.

But they can negotiate language and a timetable that Mr Kim and Mr Trump can agree on, a framework for further negotiations.

That alone would be a major accomplishment, as North Korea has rejected the idea of rapid denuclearisation, and wants a step-by-step approach.

The United States would also have to agree to changes it would make, perhaps opening talks on a peace treaty that would formally end the Korean War.

Another possible concession would be to provide security guarantees to the North that go beyond previous presidents' pledges that the United States would not seek to overthrow the current government.

But for now, veteran diplomats said the negotiating teams from the United States have the kind of experience needed to at least work out the details needed for a summit meeting.

The meetings in North Korea on Sunday, which were first reported by The Washington Post, reflected Mr Trump's willingness to turn to diplomats and functionaries with decades of experience and deep ties to former President George W. Bush.

Mr Hagin was a close Bush confidant and fixer in the White House, and Mr Sung Kim was tapped by Mr Bush for a role similar to his new one.

Crossing the line that separates the two Koreas, Mr Sung Kim met with Ms Choe Son Hui, the North Korean vice foreign minister, who said last week that Pyongyang was "reconsidering" the talks.

The two officials know each other well - both were part of their respective delegations that negotiated the 2005 denuclearisation agreement through the six-party framework.

A former US ambassador to South Korea, Mr Sung Kim is no stranger to the details of North Korea's nuclear programme - or the country's deceptions.

A decade ago this month, he and a small team of State Department officials were in Pyongyang to collect the operating records of a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Mr Sung Kim came across the DMZ with thousands of pages, which American experts at the CIA and the Energy Department used to calculate how much plutonium the country could have produced.

Ultimately, North Korea blew up the cooling tower of that reactor, much as it blew up tunnel entrances to its nuclear test site last week.

But within a few years, the reactor was back up and running. And now Mr Sung Kim faces a far more complex programme - one that has produced more than 20 nuclear weapons, that now has uranium enrichment capabilities as well as the plutonium programme, and missiles the CIA estimates will soon be able to reach most US cities.

Mr Sung Kim was joined by Ms Allison Hooker, the Korea specialist on the National Security Council, and an official from the Defence Department. Mr Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defence for East Asia and one of the officials who accompanied Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang earlier this month, also is in Seoul.

However, it could not be immediately confirmed whether he was the Pentagon official involved in Sunday's talks.

Mr Sung Kim, who was born in South Korea and was a key diplomat in the 2005 six-party talks, served as ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014, then became special representative for North Korea policy, a position that Mr Yun later took over and that is now vacant.

His North Korean counterpart, Ms Choe, also has years of experience working on these issues and is well connected within the North Korean hierarchy.

She has also served as a nuclear negotiator and led the division for US affairs in the North Korean Foreign Ministry until being promoted to vice foreign minister this year.

The daughter of a former premier, she is also thought to have direct access to Mr Kim.

News of any progress his team is making will likely be sporadic, given the lack of secure communications from inside North Korea, officials said.

Mr Yun said the goal for the US team was likely to be developing a set of documents, agreed on by both sides, that detail the three steps that North Korea is willing to consider taking toward elimination of its nuclear weapons program.

The first step, he said, is a declaration of how far the North Koreans are willing to go in unwinding their weapons programme.

The second is deciding how and when the North Koreans would provide an accounting of that process to the United States.

And the third is determining how the United States would verify those claims.

"It's a good group," Mr Yun said. "It's a technical group. It's an expert group, and they know the issues. They know what needs to be done."

Meanwhile, the US team in Singapore, also involving special assistant to the president Patrick Clifton, are set to organise logistics with Mr Kim Chang Son, who is effectively the North Korean leader's chief of staff.

Politico reported that the advance US team also includes administration officials Bobby Peede, Bill Hughes, Ben Miller, Hannah Salem and Rebecca Wasserstein.

The team was set to arrive in Japan on Monday and was to leave for Singapore the same day, according to a copy of their manifest accessed by Politico.

Mr Kim Chang Son was in Beijing from Thursday to Saturday, according to Japanese and South Korean media reports, although it was not clear whether his trip was related to the summit preparations.