Trump Needs Patience, Pressure to Sway Kim, Ex-Negotiator Says

(Bloomberg) -- One of the few South Koreans to hold direct nuclear negotiations with North Korea says President Donald Trump must balance patience and pressure if he wants to end Pyongyang’s atomic ambitions.

Trump needs to reassure Kim Jong Un that the U.S. wouldn’t threaten his grip on power while also holding Pyongyang accountable for all the fissile material it has produced for bombs, said lawmaker Lee Soo Hyuck, an influential foreign policy figure in South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party.

Trump, who held an unprecedented meeting with Kim in Singapore in June, expects a second summit as early as January. But since the June summit, progress in curbing the global security threat from North Korea’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs has been a struggle, with Pyongyang and Washington bickering over what the other side should do.

“North Korea has worries that the moment it gives up nuclear weapons, they could come under attack,” Lee said in an interview this week in Seoul. He was South Korea’s chief negotiator from 2003-05 in six-country talks to end North Korea’s nuclear arms program.

Trump Needs Patience, Pressure to Sway Kim, Ex-Negotiator Says

Lee, who also negotiated with North Korean officials in New York from 1997 to 1999 to open direct communication channels with South Korea, urged the U.S. and South Korea to consider a phased approach to denuclearization that doesn’t involve a complete nuclear list upfront.

By taking North Korea up on its offer to allow inspections of known nuclear facilities such as its Yongbyon nuclear plant the two long-time enemies can build trust, allowing the U.S. to ask for more, he said.

Critics of such an approach have cautioned that North Korea has a history of taking minimal disarmament steps to buy time while it bolsters its arsenal, and then later backing away from more substantial denuclearization.

Three-Step Plan

Lee said a long-standing stumbling block has been a push for a full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal because there is no list that will completely satisfy the U.S. American officials have long suspected North Korea of holding back a list of what it has produced while pursuing programs in secret to make more.

Trump Needs Patience, Pressure to Sway Kim, Ex-Negotiator Says

Lee is pushing for a three-step denuclearization plan that starts with North Korea shuttering its nuclear facilities and allowing for inspections. The second step would be dismantling its nuclear materials including plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The final step would be getting a list of North Korea’s previously made nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Each stage would be followed by inspections and corresponding measures.

“There is a lot of work to do, even with facilities,” Lee said. He said finishing the second stage -- getting the list of nuclear materials from North Korea and inspecting them -- would represent a major success if done within about two years. “It is a policy intended to continuously maintain momentum in denuclearizing North Korea, while giving Kim enough time to alleviate any anxieties he might have toward U.S.”

Lee, who oversees the ruling party’s foreign policy agenda, said that hasn’t yet shared his plan with U.S. and South Korean officials.

Fading honeymoon

A measure of success in nuclear negotiations could provide a much-needed boost to progressive Moon, who has staked political capital on warming up to North Korea.

Moon, who took office in May 2017, saw his approval ratings sky rocket to above 80 percent in the wake of his first summit with Kim in April.

The numbers, taken by Gallup Korea, have since dropped to 44 percent this week, the lowest since he took office. This is worrying sign in a country where presidents have often seen a steady erosion of support during their single, five-year term, which has derailed their policy agendas.

Progress between Trump and Kim could provide a boost to the South Korean president.

Lee advised the U.S. president that he can win North Korea’s trust by “granting North Korea’s wishes as long as they do not violate the U.S. national interest in a major way.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.