Time for N. Korea to take concrete steps, says Moon advisor

Comments by S. Korean president’s advisor suggest patience with Pyongyang may be wearing thin

SEOUL • North Korea should take “actual action” towards giving up its nuclear weapons to break the deadlock in talks with Washington, a top security advisor to the South’s president said, suggesting Seoul’s patience with Pyongyang may be wearing thin.

President Moon Jae-in was instrumental in brokering the negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, seizing on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to catalyse a rapid diplomatic rapprochement after a year of missile tests, threats and tensions.

But the first summit between the North’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June produced only a vague commitment to “work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

Their second meeting in Hanoi last month broke up without agreement, or even a joint statement, as the two failed to come to a deal over sanctions relief and denuclearisation.

Since then, Pyongyang has said it is considering suspending the talks and images have emerged of rebuilding works at the Sohae rocket launch facilities.

That triggered international alarm that North Korea might be preparing a long-range missile or space launch, which could put the whole negotiations process at risk — Pyongyang has not carried one out for more than a year and Trump has repeatedly said its continued moratorium is crucial.

A launch of any kind by the North would be a “disaster”, said Moon’s special advisor on national security Moon Chung-in.

The “outcome will be catastrophic”, he told AFP.

In Hanoi, US officials said, Trump urged Kim to “go all in” and that “the weapons themselves need to be on the table”. In return, they were “prepared to go all in as well”.

But it was not clear exactly which facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex the North was willing to give up, while they wanted “basically all the sanctions except for armaments” lifted, the officials said.

For its part, the North’s foreign minister said it only wanted some of the measures eased, and that its proposal to close “all the nuclear production facilities” at Yongbyon was its best and final offer.

The South Korean president’s goal, Chung-in said, is a “nuclear weapons-free, peaceful and prosperous Korean peninsula” — and he would not accept a peaceful accommodation with a nuclear-armed North.

Moon has long pushed engagement with Pyongyang to bring it to the negotiating table, but Chung-in backed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assessment that “talk is cheap”, saying that the North had given “words and commitment, but no actions”.

Kim had told the South Korean leader that he had dismantled 30% of the Sohae rocket site, including “about 20% of the launching pad — but he hasn’t shown us”, Chung-in said. “That still needs some kind of observation or inspection.”

Similarly, Pyongyang claimed to have demolished “two-thirds” of its nuclear testing ground at Punggye-ri, but that too “needs verification”, he said.

“North Korea should take further moves to really dismantle all of them,” he stressed. “It is now North Korea’s turn to show actual action to make the US move.”

Openness is crucial, he said. There are many competing estimates of the North’s nuclear arsenal, and Chung-in places the most faith in figures of 30-35 weapons from US expert Siegfried Hecker, who has been to Yongbyon.

“But still, we never know,” he added. “That is why we need the process of declaration and inspection. It’s like a blind man touching (an) elephant.”

A retired professor of politics, Chung-in has been involved with policy towards the North for decades and was one of the architects of the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with Pyongyang under former President Kim Dae-jung.

He stressed that he speaks for himself and not the president — as an advisor, he is outside the formal policymaking process — but his comments may suggest the South will press the North harder to narrow the gap with Washington on nuclear talks.

The breakdown in Hanoi meant a mooted trip by Kim to Seoul is off the table for now, Chung-in said, but noted it is vital that the two Korean leaders met again for more talks.

The South is pushing an “all for all” agreement, as demanded by the US, combined with Pyongyang’s insistence on a step-by-step process to get there, described by Chung-in as “incremental implementation with an acceptable road map”.

That would require compromise from both sides.

Chung-in has met Kim twice and said the North Korean leader has a “mastery of issues”.

“He’s young, much more willing to talk” than his father and predecessor Kim Jong-il, “kind of entertaining”.

Kim understands that “complete denuclearisation” includes his existing stock of weapons, and the missiles that can reach the US mainland and other targets, he said.

The North Korean leader was like any negotiator looking to minimise risk, while maximising benefits, Chung-in said, and “hedging” because “regime survival is at stake”.

But he must have been “very shocked” when Trump walked out of the Hanoi meeting, Chung-in said. “I think that was a very important learning process for him.” — AFP