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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
As the U.S. and North Korea enter a growing stalemate in negotiations over sanctions and denuclearization, Washington signaled Thursday it would not in the meantime approve sanctions exemptions for inter-Korean projects.
In a press briefing Thursday, a senior State Department official — believed to be Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun — also said the U.S. is waiting for North Korea to come back to the table for an all-for-all deal that would see complete denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief and economic incentives, all achievable by early 2021, they said.
The official did not, however, provide any further comment on reports of the restarting of activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Center, instead confirming his team’s awareness of the issue and repeating President Donald Trump’s concern.
When asked by a reporter if the U.S. is “currently considering giving exemptions to inter-Korean economic projects,” the official said, “yeah, I got it. No,” but did not elaborate further.
President Moon in a speech to mark Korea’s March 1 holiday last week said that Seoul would seek to discuss the restarting of joint projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Project (KIC) and Mt. Kumgang tourist zone with the U.S., and promised a “new community of economic cooperation” between Seoul and Pyongyang.
But the State Department’s comments on Thursday send a message to both North and South Korea that the reopening of those projects – goals written into an agreement signed last September in Pyongyang by President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un – may not be possible until a new U.S.-DPRK deal is signed.
Additional comments regarding U.S. expectations for what the next deal with North Korea will look like also do not bode well for the inter-Korean projects, as it continues to appear the Trump administration has backed away from the possibility of a phased approach to sanctions relief.
Before the summit in Hanoi on February 27-28, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to make clear that some sanctions would be on the table as part of a phased approach in negotiations, including “exchanges of people, lots of other ways that North Korea is sanctioned today that if we get a substantial step and move forward we could certainly provide.”
But “the core economic sanctions, the sanctions that prevent countries from conducting trade, creating wealth for North Korea, those sanctions are definitely going to remain in place” until complete denuclearization, Pompeo said – a proposal apparently rejected by the North Koreans in Hanoi last week.
On Thursday, the senior State Department official said that “nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach.”
“In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps being – all the other steps being taken,” they added, referring to sanctions relief from the U.S.
The official said past negotiations with North Korea failed due to their “incremental approach … that stretches it out over a long period of time,” saying that the Trump administration is “trying to do it differently here.”
While saying “it’s the job that’s going to drive the outcome, not the timing,” the official also said “in our view it is still doable within the President’s first term, and that’s what we’re pushing very hard with our North Korean interlocutors to achieve.”
One expert said the comments represented a major misstep by the U.S. in the “sensitive period” following last week’s Hanoi summit.
“It’s critical that the United States be perceived as the one being flexible and acting in good faith so that Beijing and others put the burden of action on Kim — and the costs are higher for North Korea if it decides to raise tensions,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department East Asia Desk officer, told NK News.
“Comments like these are a gift to North Korea. They make it seem like there was no deal at the summit because the United States had an overly inflexible and unrealistic position,” he added.
“That creates a stronger justification for North Korea to do and say provocative things while weakening the resolve of China and others to back U.S. pressure.”
Any future deal, the State Department official said Thursday, would require North Korea “taking out all their key – parts of their nuclear fuel cycle.”
These include “removing all their fissile material, removing their nuclear warheads, removing or destroying all their intercontinental ballistic missiles, permanently freezing any other weapons of mass destruction programs, and moving them on a course to reorient their economy towards civilian pursuits in order to make this a permanent direction for their country.”
Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons programs are included in their definition of weapons of mass destruction, the official clarified.
The U.S. would, in exchange, offer “integration into the global economy, a transformed relationship with the United States of America, a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and a closure to a 70-year relationship characterized by hostility and warfare between our two countries.”
Referring to the official’s recent speech at Stanford – revealing their likely identity as Special Representative Biegun – a reporter asked if the two sides were any closer to an agreed definition of denuclearization following the summit.
The official said the two sides had “closed some of the gaps on… issues, like declarations and freezes” in both working-level talks this year and in Hanoi, but that “some of the ideas are still ours and remain to be accepted by the North Koreans.”
Following the failure to sign a deal at the second Trump-Kim summit, the official reiterated the administration’s aim to “maintain the economic pressure against North Korea.”
President Trump will still have the final word on any decision to initialize new sanctions measures, the official said, but they also promised the U.S. would work with its allies to “continue to put our full efforts into policing and enforcing those sanctions because, as we all know well, there is a certain amount of leakage and evasion.”
“There’s a clear choice to be made here, and if they choose to go in the direction that the President laid out to them in an expansive manner at the summit in Hanoi, then they can – they have a very bright future ahead of them,” they said.
The official would not say whether the two sides have been in communication since returning from Hanoi, but said there would need to be a “period of reflection,” and that the ball is in North Korea’s court.
“It is going to be up to the North Koreans, to some extent, to decide to engage on meeting some of the expectations that are out there on denuclearization.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun