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(LEAD) (News Focus) U.S., N.K. ready for historic summit, but uncertainty looms over nuclear diplomacy

2018/03/09 16:00

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(ATTN: ADDS U.S. official's comments, photos)

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- As the leaders of the United States and North Korea have made a surprise agreement to hold an unprecedented summit, expectations are growing for a breakthrough in the nuclear stalemate.

But the devil might be in the details, experts say, as it will be quite a challenge to turn any dialogue into serious negotiations to make Pyongyang eventually forswear its nuclear and missile programs.

South Korea's national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters at the White House that Donald Trump accepted Kim Jong-un's invitation to meet with him as soon as possible.

Chung delivered the invitation during his briefing on the outcome of his trip to Pyongyang early this week as President Moon Jae-in's special envoy.

"President Trump appreciated the briefing and said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization," Chung said.

Experts see the agreement as a significant step toward easing tensions and possibly finding a peaceful resolution of the North's nuclear problem.

"The U.S. and North Korea are the last remaining legacy of the Cold War, but the latest agreement seems to mark a major step toward dialogue and mutual trust," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University. "It is quite meaningful, though we shouldn't expect too much from the start of what would be a long process lying ahead."

   The agreement has marked the latest in a series of reconciliatory actions that were unimaginable as recent as late last year, when Trump and Kim exchanged bellicose, sometimes derogatory remarks.

Things changed dramatically for the better at a fast clip after Kim, in his New Year's Day speech, expressed willingness to send athletes to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

The two Koreas held a series of working-level talks thereafter to discuss the matter, and the North sent its athletes and a delegation to South Korea last month with Kim's message to invite Moon to Pyongyang.

In a subsequent move, they recently agreed to hold what would be their third summit in history, in late April, and establish a hotline between their leaders, a move that could reduce tensions and the possibility of a military clash caused by miscalculation or misunderstanding.

North Korea also said that there is no reason to possess nuclear weapons if its security is guaranteed and the U.S. does not seek a hostile policy toward it.

Despite the inter-Korean détente, the U.S. had been adamant that the North should demonstrate its sincere intention to give up nuclear weapons before starting any dialogue. The North responded by saying it would not beg for talks with such preconditions.

James Kim, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that it still remains to be seen whether any meeting or dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea turns into actual negotiations aimed at ridding the North of its nuclear ambitions.

"The key issue here is that such dialogue could lead to negotiations. And even if negotiations start, questions remain whether they could proceed without a hitch. If history is any guide, nuclear-related talks with the North have always fallen apart," he said.

Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank, drew attention to the fact that the U.S. has set a timetable for a meeting with the North, raising possibility that it could signal that there might be meaningful concessions from the North regarding its nuclear programs.

He referred to Chung's announcement at the White House, in which he said that South Korea, the U.S. and other partners will make sure to continue to put pressure on the North until it "matches these words with concrete actions."

   "Trump mentioned that he would meet the North Korean leader by May, but could it have been possible to mention such a detailed timeline had it not been for any confidence that the North will take meaningful actions (on denuclearization)? I think they can start to meet to make such concrete actions materialize," he said.

"The devil might be in the details. Things could get tricky, for example, when the U.S. pushes for on-site inspections on nuclear programs at suspicious sites in the North. If the North does not want it, that could cause suspicion about its willingness to go forward on denuclearization," he added. "Such actions like a freeze on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles would not be enough for moving talks forward."


This photo provided by the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae shows South Korea's national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, speaking in Washington on March 8, 2018, that U.S. President Donald Trump has accepted Kim Jong-un's invitation to meet with him as soon as possible. (Yonhap) This photo provided by the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae shows South Korea's national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, speaking in Washington on March 8, 2018, that U.S. President Donald Trump has accepted Kim Jong-un's invitation to meet with him as soon as possible. (Yonhap)

A senior U.S. government official told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is not yet talking about "negotiations," suggesting that it is too early to talk about "verification" of nuclear facilities in the North.

"At this point we're not even talking about negotiations," the official told reporters during a press call after the announcement was made. "What we're talking about is an invitation by the leader of North Korea to meet face to face with the president of the United States. The president has accepted that invitation."

   The official rebuffed any speculation that there might be behind-the-scenes deals given Trump accepted the summit overture without planning any lower-level discussions with the North, reminding reporters that he has said that he would take "approaches very, very different from past approaches and past presidents."

   Cautions are still lingering, with some calling into question whether the recent reconciliatory mood can end up resolving the North's nuclear problem. They doubt if Pyongyang will eventually agree to give up the nuclear ambitions it has maintained for decades.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian professor and North Korea expert teaching at Kookmin University in Seoul, cautioned against hoping the conversation made possible by the U.S.' "blackmail" would lead to any marked progress on the denuclearization front.

"It is undeniable that Trump's blackmail, including his threats to take military action, has succeeded (to force the North out for talks)," he said. "For North Korea, it is still unthinkable to abandon its nuclear programs because it feared that decision could put its regime in jeopardy ... it seems all but impossible for the North to give it up altogether."