U.S. Says North Korea Promised to Destroy Enrichment Facilities

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea has promised to destroy all its facilities for making nuclear-bomb fuel, the top U.S. top negotiator said, in a sign that President Donald Trump is seeking clearer disarmament steps from his upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un.

North Korea has committed “to the dismantlement and destruction” of all its uranium- and plutonium-enrichment facilities in talks with both Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and South Korean leaders, Stephen Biegun, the U.S.’s special representative for North Korea, said in a speech Thursday. The pledge goes beyond the Yongbyon nuclear plant, which Kim has previously offered to demolish, Biegun said at Stanford University in California.

“This complex of sites extending beyond Yongbyon represents the totality of the North Korean plutonium-reprocessing and uranium-enrichment programs,” Biegun said. He added that North Korea wanted the U.S. to take “corresponding measures” -- which he would discuss with North Korean officials in upcoming talks.

U.S. Says North Korea Promised to Destroy Enrichment Facilities

Biegun’s comments -- his first public speech in five months as Pompeo’s special envoy -- offered a rare insight into the administration’s approach to North Korea that officials had previously declined to provide. They appeared to be part of a coordinated roll-out to signal that substantive negotiations with Pyongyang were underway ahead of a second summit between Trump and Kim in February.

Kim has made no commitments to let North Korea’s arsenal be inspected or dismantled since agreeing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in his first meeting with Trump in June. His agenda ranges from sanctions relief to restart economic projects to formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War to weakening the U.S.-South Korean military alliance.

Earlier in the day, Trump said he would announce next week the time and place of the summit, which is expected to take place in late February in Vietnam. As Biegun was speaking, the State Department announced he would fly to South Korea on Sunday for more meetings, including with his North Korean counterpart. He’ll also visit Pyongyang on Wednesday, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing a person it didn’t identify.

While the president continues to say that North Korea’s lack of missile and nuclear tests for more than a year were key achievements, leaked intelligence reporters and analysis of satellite imagery suggests he has used the time to stockpile more nuclear material and missiles.

“Time will tell what will happen with North Korea, but at the end of the previous administration, relationship was horrendous and very bad things were about to happen,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “Now a whole different story.”

Trump’s top intelligence officials, however, have expressed doubt that the U.S. will ever achieve its goal of “total denuclearization.” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday that the intelligence community “continues to assess that it is unlikely to give up all of its WMD stockpiles, delivery systems, and production capabilities.”

“North Korean leaders view nuclear arms as critical to regime survival,” Coats said.

Nevertheless, Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington who was involved in North Korea talks from 1993 to 1995, praised Biegun’s latest comments for filling in some details. Biegun said the U.S. would demand “a set of concrete deliverables, a road map of negotiations and declarations going forward.” He also hinted at a move to resolve the Korean War, saying, “President Trump is ready to end this war. It is over.”

“There’s a lot of smoke here, and now there’s a little bit of fire,” Wit said. “Their overall approach, the fact that the North Koreans appear to have agreed to dismantle their fissile material production facilities beyond Yongbyon, what more do we need as a sign that there’s a serious process.”

Biegun said the U.S. would demand a “comprehensive declaration” of North Korea’s missile and WMD program. The administration would also insist on access to and monitoring of “key sites” to ensure North Korea’s stockpiles are removed, he said.

“President Trump has made clear that should North Korea follow through on Chairman Kim’s commitment to complete denuclearization, the United States will in return exceed anything previously thought possible,” Biegun said.

U.S. officials told Bloomberg News that they were planning to hold the summit in Vietnam. The summit would probably take place in the capital Hanoi, but Danang -- the site of the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting -- and Ho Chi Minh City in the country’s south have also been considered, the people said.

A North Korean promise to declare and dismantle all plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities would be “meaningful,” said Chun Yungwoo, who represented South Korea in the six-party nuclear negotiations from 2006 to 2008. But Trump must be careful not to give away too much in exchange, said Chun, who’s now chairman of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.

“If the United States gives all of its leverage, the deal will end with North Korea freezing its additional production,” he said. “If there is remaining leverage for the United States, it could be used to get rid of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons and materials.”

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