Suh Hoon, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, said on Tuesday that the United States and North Korea were making progress in working-level negotiations preparing for a potential second Trump-Kim summit. Such momentum would constitute a positive development. Ahead of this second summit, expected in February, working-level negotiations will be critical to laying the groundwork for any meaningful agreement on disarmament.
In a statement to a parliamentary committee, Suh noted that Washington and Pyongyang had begun preparing a joint declaration on denuclearization. “As both North Korea and the United States are expressing satisfaction, and their working-level negotiations have begun in the earnest, we expect denuclearization talks to get a push,” Suh said.
Suh’s statement comes nearly two weeks after the first meeting between Stephen Biegun and Kim Hyok Chol, the U.S. and North Korean special envoys leading the working-level negotiations. Their meeting in Washington came only days after Pyongyang appointed Kim, a former North Korean ambassador to Spain. Kim’s predecessor had previously declined to meet with Biegun, whom President Trump appointed last August.
Following the meeting of the envoys, Biegun proceeded to speak with Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, and Lee Doo-hoon, South Korea’s special representative in Korean peninsula peace and security, to discuss the second summit.
Before last June’s Singapore summit, significant working-level negotiations were absent, leaving Trump and Kim to negotiate on their own. Such unconventional diplomacy played directly into the hands of North Korea, which preferred not to specify how it would fulfill the broad commitment to denuclearization made by the two leaders.
In a joint statement by Trump and Kim following the Singapore summit, the U.S. leader adopted North Korean language calling for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Although the U.S. already withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, Pyongyang defines complete denuclearization to include the full U.S. withdrawal of any nuclear weapons in the broader region that could strike North Korea. In effect, Pyongyang is calling for the complete removal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan as well as withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula as security guarantees.
Trump also gave Pyongyang an unexpected and unreciprocated concession by cancelling U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which he referred to as “provocative” and “expensive” war games. This language mirrors Kim Jong Un’s own description of the exercises.
Accordingly, without advanced preparation for the second summit, the North Koreans could once again exploit direct negotiations with Trump to extract premature concessions.
In this context, the latest impasse in negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea over the funding of U.S. troops in Korea warrants concern. The North Koreans have repeatedly demanded the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. In light of President Trump’s expressed desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea as well, he or Kim Jong Un could put such a proposal on the table. If accepted, it would undermine the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
North Korea’s track record in past negotiations suggests they will offer broad, but vague, pledges of cooperation, but resist major concessions demanded by Washington, such as a complete and verifiable declaration of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and facilities. Before the second summit, Washington and Pyongyang should work to develop specific measures and timetables that lead to a future roadmap and plan towards North Korea’s final and fully verifiable denuclearization. In so doing, America can test North Korea’s sincerity without providing any early concessions.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow Mat on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.