North Korea
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
A North Korea People’s Army soldier stands at the entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility before a demolition “ceremony”. Photo: AFP

Is the US about to lower the bar for North Korea denuclearisation?

  • There are growing signs Washington is about to set aside its previous demand for complete disarmament after months of stalemate with Pyongyang
  • Reports indicate the Trump administration is considering sanctions relief in exchange for concrete progress towards slowing down the North’s nuclear programme
North Korea
Ahead of an anticipated second summit between United States President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, there are growing signs that Washington is ready to lower the bar for a denuclearisation deal with Pyongyang that delivers at least some progress after months of stalemate.
“You could have something that talks about slowing the programme down in exchange for sanctions relief or reorientation of the American footprint, or maybe long-term suspension of large exercises with South Korea,” said Vipin Narang, a specialist in nuclear proliferation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), referring to US troops in South Korea. “Both sides can save face then.”

On Wednesday, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Seoul and Washington were discussing incentives to offer the North in return for significant actions toward nuclear disarmament.

Both sides can save face then
Vipin Narang, MIT

Unnamed South Korean officials, meanwhile, told Reuters this week the US was considering “interim” measures to end the gridlock. South Korea’s Chosun newspaper reported that the Trump administration was weighing sanctions relief in exchange for the North freezing its nuclear programme and sending its intercontinental ballistic missiles abroad for disposal.

Trump, Moon and a fight over the bill. In US-Korea ties, a perfect storm for Kim Jong-un

Under United Nations and US sanctions, North Korea is banned from exporting moneymakers such as coal, iron ore and textiles, and subject to tight restrictions on imports of oil and refined petroleum.

The Trump administration, which has repeatedly insisted that there would be no sanctions relief before complete denuclearisation, has kept mum on reports of a change in policy.

South Korean protesters hold banners during a rally denouncing a US visit to a border village the Koreas have been demilitarising as part of steps to reduce military tensions amid a larger diplomatic push to resolve the nuclear crisis. Photo: AP
North Korea’s nuclear negotiator Kim Yong-chol departed Beijing for Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during which the sides could finalise details of a second summit. Trump and Kim are anticipated to meet as early as February or March, with speculation pointing to Vietnam or Thailand as likely venues.

At their first summit in Singapore last June, Trump and Kim signed a vaguely worded statement in which Pyongyang agreed to the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. Pyongyang has taken only reversible or largely symbolic steps toward disarmament since, holding out for “corresponding measures” from the US – widely interpreted to mean a relaxation of sanctions.

Michael Spavor arrest shows perils faced by foreigners in Dandong, on China’s North Korean frontier

Although Trump claimed last year there was “no longer a nuclear threat” from North Korea, frustration has been building for months in Washington over the lack of results produced by the Singapore agreement.

“An ‘interim deal’ is plausible because the last summit increasingly looks like a failure in hindsight,” said Van Jackson, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and the author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War.

“This summit would have to produce something deeper than rhetoric that completely contradicts reality. The issue is what’s on the table, and how reversible the measures each side agrees to would be.”

MIT’s Narang said one possible outcome would be for Washington to indirectly relax pressure on the North by endorsing South Korea’s desire to increase economic cooperation with its neighbour.

Pyongyang has taken only reversible or largely symbolic steps toward disarmament, holding out for “corresponding measures” from the US – widely interpreted to mean a relaxation of sanctions. Photo: AFP

“One back door could be giving a blessing to inter-Korean trade, and exemptions on certain types of trade between the North and South, which helps the inter-Korean process, and also looks like sanctions relief from the US,” he said. “And so you get this kind of symbolic thing that the North Koreans are looking for, and that would be a reflection of reality and also make progress in the relationship.”

Although analysts are widely sceptical that Pyongyang can ever be convinced to entirely give up its nuclear weapons, interim measures to limit the growth of its arsenal would reduce the risk of accidental detonation and nuclear proliferation.

US wants Japan and South Korea to tag team China. But history is in the way

“If you could slow plutonium production and tritium production, that could really change the composition of the future force, and it’s a meaningful objective,” Narang said. “The question is, ‘At what price?’”

Jackson from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre cautioned that even a modest breakthrough could be too much to expect from the next Trump-Kim summit.

“North Korea has been crystal clear it’s not denuclearising without something dramatic from the US, and even then there’s no indication North Korea would actually follow through,” he said.

“There are also some basic logistical issues to work out ahead of a summit; ideally they would coordinate joint statements or agree upon deliverables, and that would take multiple high-level visits. Of course they had multiple high-level visits ahead of the last summit and yet agreed on nothing, leading to confusion, misunderstandings, and false boasts in the wake of the summit.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US appears open to lowering bar for disarmament deal