North Korea

US must open talks on North Korea sanctions relief to get progress on denuclearisation, former US diplomat says

  • Joseph Yun, a former US envoy for North Korea policy, said he supported the idea of Washington saying ‘we’re willing to discuss certain [sanction] exemptions’
  • Adjusting the US approach would move stalled negotiations forward, the former US envoy said
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 5:44am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 8:18am

If the US wants North Korea to take concrete steps towards removing its nuclear weapons, it must begin discussing the possibility of lifting sanctions on the hermit state, a former top US diplomat for North Korea said on Friday.

Joseph Yun, former US special representative for North Korea policy at the State Department, said he supported the idea of Washington adjusting its message to say “we’re willing to discuss certain [sanction] exemptions” instead of continuing to insist on providing no sanctions relief to the North without “final and fully verified denuclearisation”.

It “opens up a whole avenue of discussion” to move stalled negotiations forward, the former US envoy told an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Yun made the comment while answering a question from James Schoff, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Programme. Schoff had asked if Yun agreed that the US needed to consider discussing sanctions relief to get progress from North Korea on denuclearisation.

Yun’s comments came hours after North Korea claimed it successfully tested an undisclosed “hi-tech tactical” weapon and that had decided to deport a US citizen who has been detained since October for illegally entering the country.

“It is always a good sign that they want to release American detainees,” Yun said. “They are trying to send that signal.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Friday that the US “appreciates” the cooperation of North Korea and Sweden in bringing about the release of an American citizen.

But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s supervision of the reported hi-tech weapon’s testing is saying to the US that “we can go either way”, Yun cautioned.

“The testing of the high-tech tactical weapon has been carried out successfully, meeting all superior and powerful designing indicators,” Yonhap news agency reported, citing an announcement from North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Broadcasting Station.

“We watch North Korea closely,” Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan, a spokesman at the Pentagon, said in an email, while declining to further comment on the details of the reported test and the unspecified tactical weapon.

Despite the testing, the State Department said in a statement that the US remains “confident that the promises made by President Trump and Chairman Kim will be fulfilled”.

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“At the Singapore Summit, President Trump and Chairman Kim made a number of commitments regarding final, fully verified denuclearisation and creating a brighter future for North Korea,” the statement said.

“We are talking with the North Koreans about implementing all of those commitments,” it continued. “The president has made clear that if Kim Jong-un denuclearises, there is a bright future for North Korea.”

Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June and signed a vaguely worded document on removing nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula. Trump subsequently said he expected a second meeting with Kim to occur early next year.

However, the bilateral nuclear talks have stalled as Pyongyang has blamed Washington for demanding the North’s unilateral nuclear disarmament amid a lack of corresponding offers such as sanction relief.

Furthermore, a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterpart Kim Yong-chol that had been scheduled for last week in New York has been postponed.

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“it is not surprising that North Korea is continuing to develop and test its military capabilities,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based think tank. “Pyongyang only committed to halt long-range ballistic missile launches.

“With talks stalled and the Trump administration continuing to emphasise that no sanctions relief will be granted until denuclearisation is completed, the United States should expect signalling from Pyongyang that North Korea can also ratchet up pressure on negotiations.”

But the reports from North Korea’s state media about Pyongyang’s decision to deport a US detainee could be viewed as a positive gesture for future diplomatic engagement.

The US citizen, identified as Bruce Byron Lowrance, has been detained in North Korea since he was caught illegally entering North Korea via the border with China last month, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

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He confessed to have entered the country under the direction of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency, the KCNA said. It did not specify when the US citizen would be deported.

A spokesman at the State Department said in an email that “we are aware of reports of the release of a US citizen who had been detained by the DPRK” while declining to share details of the detainee “due to privacy considerations”.

“The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the spokesman said. “When a US citizen is detained abroad, consular officers seek to aid him or her with all appropriate consular assistance.”

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North Korea has released four detained Americans since Trump took office in early 2017. Otto Warmbier, one of the four detainees and an American college student, died after he was returned to the US in a coma in June last year.

Trump welcomed home the other three detainees, all American citizens of Korean descent, at Joint Base Andrews, a military airbase in Maryland in early May.