A senior defense official giving a background briefing to reporters on Sunday stated that the Trump administration will soon present North Korea with a “specific timeline” for denuclearization filled with “specific asks,” and will judge Pyongyang’s degree of “good faith” by how well the timeline is received.
“We’ll know pretty soon if they’re going to operate in good faith or not,” the anonymous official said, as recounted by Reuters. “There will be specific asks and there will be a specific timeline when we present the North Koreans with our concept of what implementation of the summit agreement looks like.”
Reuters implies the promise of “specific asks” was, to some degree, a response to criticisms that President Donald Trump has not made enough specific demands of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un yet, and most of the concessions offered by Kim to date have been symbolic gestures of little real cost to the North Korean regime.
The press briefing was held on Sunday in advance of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s trip to Asia, during which he will visit China, South Korea, and Japan. As he departed, Mattis confirmed that both the major Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill and two smaller training exercises with South Korea have been suspended, a gesture intended to keep negotiations with North Korea on track.
The timetable presented to North Korea will probably be quite aggressive, as Reuters notes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated major disarmament should be underway before the end of President Trump’s first term. Some analysts have said full and irreversible disarmament could take 15 years or more, so the Trump administration’s goal is presumably to complete solid initial steps that will demonstrate North Korea is truly committed to following that long path.
One of the goals Mattis outlined for his trip to China is ensuring Beijing will remain committed to enforcing strong sanctions against North Korea until denuclearization is achieved. China will almost certainly wish to reward North Korea with immediate sanctions relief if progress on denuclearization is made, so it will be important to ensure China understands and agrees with the timetable presented to Pyongyang.
Mattis will also push for more regional security cooperation from China by pointing out that the suspension of U.S. military exercises with South Korea satisfies a major Chinese strategic objective, which is the real reason China has insisted so strongly on its “freeze-for-freeze” plan that made suspension of American exercises a precondition for nuclear talks with North Korea.