The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Thursday that President Donald Trump’s negotiation team is mulling a short term plan to relieve sanctions on North Korea if Pyongyang agrees to dismantle the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, it’s main nuclear enrichment site.
Washington would also reportedly demand “a freeze of the entire nuclear program” before offering relief on sanctions, currently the strictest international sanctions regime placed on any country in modern history. The relief would last between a year and 18 months, according to Yonhap’s source. Yonhap cites “a source close to White House deliberations on North Korea” for the alleged revelation.
If true, the plan would contradict months of American officials insisting that the country would not support lifting sanctions on North Korea until communist dictator Kim Jong-un proves that his military is no longer a nuclear threat, completely and irreversibly dismantling its illegal nuclear weapons program. As recently as this Tuesday, the U.S. State Department insisted that, while negotiators may see a temporary freeze of nuclear development as a step forward, the ultimate goal of any negotiation with North Korea would be a permanent end to its reign of terror over east Asia as a rogue nuclear state.
In February, President Trump indicated that sanctions relief could come from a measure smaller than the complete elimination of the program: “something that’s meaningful” from the North Koreans.
Since then, however, administration officials have insisted that sanctions are not negotiable without an end to the nuclear program.
“We believe that Chairman Kim Jong-un understands … that sanctions relief cannot take place until such time as we have demonstrated that North Korea has been completely denuclearized,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a month ago. “We’re going to get complete denuclearization; only then will there be relief from the sanctions.”
During a regular press briefing on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said that the Trump administration “obviously” wants a full end to North Korea’s nuclear program.
A freeze, rather than full elimination, of the nuclear program “would never be the resolution of a process; that would never be the end of a process,” she said. “That would – something that we would certainly hope to see at the beginning, but I don’t think that the administration has ever characterized a freeze as being the end goal.”
“The White House, when working-level talks begin, wants to set the conditions whereby they can begin the process of North Korea’s denuclearization,” the anonymous source working with the South Korean outlet said in the Thursday report. “The White House is open to many ideas to incentivize the North to make what they call ‘a critical first step’ on denuclearization. Their first goal in the talks is to prove to the North that they can trust the U.S. and that Washington wants to do something historic to ensure the hostile intent of both sides is now firmly in the past.”
America is being especially “flexible” in light of the failure of talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, this February, a two-day summit that President Trump walked out on because, he told journalists, the North Koreans were making unreasonable demands.
“Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump said at the time. North Korean negotiators denied this claim, alleging that they instead offered to shut down the Yongbyon complex in exchange for sanctions relief and the Americans rejected the proposal.
Subsequent reports from the summit revealed that the North Koreans were also demanding that America recognize them as a formal nuclear power and send “famous basketball players” to entertain Kim in Pyongyang.
“We’ll see what happens. The sanctions are on in full. I haven’t taken sanctions off, as you know. I’d love to be able to, but in order to do that, we have to do something that’s meaningful on the other side,” Trump said that month.
“With the failure of Hanoi, they are mindful that being flexible, while at the same time making a strong offer to North Korea that tests its intentions while building trust, is important,” Yonhap’s source claimed. “(The new model) does not give North Korea the amount of sanctions relief it wanted and asks a little more in return from the North.”
The sanctions Yonhap discusses the U.S. lifting would affect North Korea’s coal and textile industries. In addition to sanctions relief, North Korea could potentially win an official peace treaty to end the Korean War, which began in 1950 and is still technically an active war, though an armistice ended live fighting in 1953.
Satellite images of Yongbyon suggest that it has continued to actively enrich Uranium as recently as this June. Following the abrupt end to the Hanoi summit, Trump said that shutting down Yongbyon would not be enough because of other secret enrichment facilities remaining active. The shutdown of Yongbyon would also have to be definitively verified before sanctions relief can through, Yonhap’s source claimed, which would require unprecedented international access to the site that the North Korean would likely object to.
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