The U.S. State Department denied a report on Thursday in South Korean media that claimed the Trump administration is considering sanctions relief for North Korea, calling it “completely false.”
The report, primarily disseminated through South Korean newswire service Yonhap, cited an anonymous “source” familiar with U.S. diplomacy towards North Korea, who allegedly claimed that President Donald Trump was mulling a plan to trade sanctions relief for the shutdown of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Site, the communist dictatorship’s main known facility for enriching uranium.
The deal, if agreed upon, would contradict repeated assurances from Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other senior members of the administration that they would only call for easing international sanctions on the rogue state once North Korea provided proof that its illegal nuclear weapons program no longer exists and cannot be easily restored.
Rumors of a sanctions relief deal followed a surprise meeting between Trump and communist dictator Kim Jong-un last month in the Korean border town of Panmunjom following Trump’s appearance at the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. The meeting, prompted by President Trump’s invitation via Twitter for him and Kim to meet, ended a tense period after Trump’s abrupt exit from an in-person meeting between the two heads of state in February.
At the time, North Korean negotiators told reporters they offered to shut down Yongbyon in exchange for sanctions relief, but Trump walked out. Trump told reporters he left the talks because Kim’s diplomats were too insistent on sanctions relief.
North Korea is currently under one of the strictest international sanctions regimes in history, passed by the United Nations Security Council in 2017. The sanctions cover exports in most of North Korea’s major industries, primarily coal and seafood. While, as two permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia, voted for the sanctions, ample evidence since their passing suggests the two countries have helped Pyongyang evade them.
State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told reporters Thursday, citing United States Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, that the Yonhap report was not an accurate representation of the current state of talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
“[W]hile we don’t preview any sort of sanctions from the podium, whether it’s adding new ones or taking them away, I will say that I did actually speak to Steve Biegun about that, and he categorically denied that. He said that report is completely false, so there is no truth to that,” Ortagus said. She also suggested reporters study her comments during Tuesday’s press briefing for a more accurate explanation of what the United States is seeking in new talks with North Korea.
On Tuesday, Ortagus said that a “freeze,” rather than full dismantlement of nuclear development in North Korea, would be a welcome start to talks with the United States but “would never be the resolution of a process; that would never be the end of a process.”
“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,” she emphasized.
Yonhap reported that the freeze could lead to sanctions relief without definitive proof that North Korea no longer had a nuclear program.
Yonhap quoted the anonymous source as saying:
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.
The South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo similarly reported this week that an anonymous American source believed the Trump administration was “reviewing” a plan to offer sanctions relief. Unlike Yonhap, JoongAng‘s report indicated that the freeze-for-sanctions-relief offer was one of several proposals on the table for the White House and that it was merely an idea being considered, not the idea that America would definitively propose to Kim.
“The source said that the White House and U.S. negotiating team is also considering a peace declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice agreement, and installing a liaison office,” JoongAng reported, adding that Trump may face “domestic backlash” in the United States for walking back his administration’s insistence on refusing sanctions relief without a categorical end to North Korea as a nuclear threat.
The threat of such a backlash is especially possible in light of the fact that Yonhap suggests the plan revolves around the Yongbyon complex, which the North Koreans claimed they already offered to shut down.
Trump met with Kim for the second time ever in February in Hanoi, Vietnam, a summit meant to build upon what both sides heralded as progress in their first meeting in Singapore last year. The summit, scheduled to last two days, ended halfway through when Trump walked out.
“Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump told reporters following his departure.
North Korean diplomats claimed Trump was lying and that they had made reasonable offers to the White House, namely the shutdown of Yongbyon in exchange for sanctions relief – the same plan Yonhap claimed Trump was considering accepting now.
Subsequent reports in American media revealed that the North Koreans were asking for much more than sanctions relief. Various reports stated that Kim demanded public recognition for North Korea as a formal nuclear power and visits from “famous basketball players” to Pyongyang.
Kim went on a publicity blitz against Trump following the Hanoi summit, including meetings in person with Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. During his meeting with the latter in the far-east Russian city of Vladivostok, Kim complained that Trump had acted “in bad faith” at the Hanoi summit.
“[P]eace and security on the Korean peninsula will entirely depend on the U.S. future attitude, and the DPRK will gird itself for every possible situation,” Kim told Putin, according to North Korean state media.
The Panjunmon meeting, which was not an official summit and did not appear to result in any major policy changes, seemed to change Kim’s disposition towards the Trump administration. Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s flagship state newspaper, called the meeting “amazing.”
“Kim Jong Un said that it was the good personal relations with President Trump that made such a dramatic meeting possible at just a one day’s notice, noting that the relations would continue to produce good results unpredictable by others and work as a mysterious force overcoming manifold difficulties and obstacles in the future, too,” Rodong Sinmun reported.