How to break the US-North Korea stalemate
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How to break the US-North Korea stalemate

AFTER months of talks and little action, South Korea believes it has a strategy to break the stalemate between Washington and North Korea – and it involves a significant concession from the United States.

South Korea’s foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha has urged the US negotiating team to hold off on its demand for an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and instead offer a peace treaty that would bring an end to the Korean War.

The conflicted was halted with an armistice in 1953, but no official declaration of peace was ever agreed, meaning North and South Korea technically remain at war.

The US’s concession of a peace declaration would be in exchange for Pyongyang dismantling its main nuclear complex.

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“What North Korea has indicated is they will permanently dismantle their nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, which is a very big part of their nuclear programme,” Kang said in an interview with The Washington Post.

“If they do that in return for America’s corresponding measures, such as the end-of-war declaration, I think that’s a huge step forward for denuclearisation.”

Kang’s remarks come ahead of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang on Sunday, where he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a bid to break the deadlock that has stalled negotiations.

Despite US President Donald Trump reportedly promising a peace declaration during his meeting with Kim back in June, the US has been reluctant to make the move without any major concessions from the North.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pose for photographs, alongside their spouses, North Korea’s Ri Sol Ju and South Korea’s first lady Kim Jung-sook, on the top of Mt. Paektu, North Korea, in this photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 21, 2018. Source: KCNA via Reuters

Negotiators have maintained a hardline on Pyongyang producing a full list of its nuclear capabilities and weapons but have failed to secure an agreement even after several high-profile meetings.

North Korea has made it clear it has no plans to submit to the request, with state media calling the idea “rubbish.”

This reluctance on the part of the North Korean’s is not going to subside Kang said, suggesting that US insistence on it risks bogging down talks for good. Even if Pyongyang did produce a list, the issue of verification would inevitably be the next question.

Before this can happen, trust needs to be built between the two sides, said Kang. And for that to happen the US has to offer something significant.

As negotiations have gone on, however, it appears Trump and his advisors may be singing from different hymn sheets.

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While Trump is reportedly open to signing the peace declaration, the negotiating team has stood firm on the issue.

The concern is with peace would also come a request to remove the 28,500 US troops from South Korea. According to the Post, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton has voiced his apprehension in signing any deal that would result in this.

Trump, however, has taken a different tone, repeatedly questioning why troops are there at all. Excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear detailed an instance when Trump questioned Defence Secretary James Mattis on the issue only to be told, “We’re doing this [keeping troops in South Korea] in order to prevent World War III.”

When presented with South Korea’s strategy, experts told the Post the closure of Yongbyon facility would be “welcome,” but they remain skeptical as to how much this will curtail Pyongyang’s ability to develop weapons given their covert facilities.

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(File) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks into the Park Hwa Guest House following a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief in Pyongyang, North Korea July 6, 2018. Source: Reuters

“It’s unrealistic to expect a comprehensive, completely accurate list from the get-go, but the administration should still insist that Pyongyang at least disclose all fuel-cycle-related facilities anywhere in the country,” said Duyeon Kim, a Korea expert with the Centre for a New American Security.

Pompeo is due to arrive in Pyongyang on Sunday. He said at a press conference on Tuesday he was “optimistic” about the next session, but he has backed away from a timeline for denuclearisation.

This is echoed by Trump, despite Kim promising full denuclearisation by the end of Trump’s first term. But the odds of that happening are looking increasingly unlikely as even the term ‘denuclearisation’ is yet to be defined and agreed upon.

While Pyongyang continues to welcome White House officials, how seriously it is taking negotiations is hard to tell.

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The South insists Kim is serious about giving up his weapons. And public statements from Kim seem to support this, usually accompanied with glowing praise for Trump.

But, according to the Post, Pyongyang has rebuffed Pompeo’s new special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, failing to even respond to an invite to meet with him.

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), considered a mouthpiece for the government, has also called for US to ease sanctions before the North will take any steps of its own.

Given Pompeo’s remarks, this looks unlikely to happen any time soon. After having chaired a special session on North Korea at the UN last week, Pompeo said the Security Council was in complete unanimity about the need for sanctions to stay in place.

This upcoming visit, he said, will simply be “one more step along the way towards achieving” denuclearisation.