North Korea and the U.S. were on Friday set to begin a round of preliminary working-level negotiations in Sweden, in high-stakes talks intended to iron out the specifics of a potential future nuclear deal between the two countries.
The meetings are expected to see negotiators hold talks over Friday and Saturday, and are the first of their kind between Washington and Pyongyang since January.
Six North Korean officials left the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm at around 0940 local time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
The North Korean delegation was expected to head to the venue for the preliminary working-level negotiations, Yonhap said, adding it could not confirm a specific schedule and place.
Friday’s talks are not expected to feature U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun, and will instead be led by Mark Lambert, the deputy head of Washington’s delegation.
The North Korean delegation arrived in Stockholm on Thursday, led by the country’s new chief negotiator Kim Myong Gil.
“As the U.S. side sent a new signal, I bear high expectations and optimism, and I am also optimistic about the results,” Kim told reporters
He is accompanied by a number of other officials from North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), including Jong Nam Hyok and Kim Kwang Hak, longtime MFA functionaries and researchers at its Institute of American Studies.
Also joining the team in Sweden is Kwon Jong Gun, a senior official whose positions remains unclear: he was formally replaced as head of the North Korean foreign ministry’s U.S. affairs department earlier in the week.
NK News understands, however, that his replacement Jo Chol Su has remained in Pyongyang and will not be attending the talks on Friday.
MONTHS IN THE MAKING
This weekend’s talks come just days after North Korea conducted a test of what its state media described as a “new-type” of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
They are also months in the making: North Korea and the U.S. originally agreed to restart working-level negotiations in June, at a surprise meeting at the inter-Korean border between DPRK leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Talks were stalled for several months, however, amid a spate of North Korean missile testing and tensions over U.S.-ROK joint drills.
The mood warmed in September, with first vice foreign minister Choe saying in a statement that the North was willing to return to talks with the U.S. later that month.
But that statement contained an important caveat: that the U.S. would need to offer North Korea a new “calculation” in the negotiations that moved beyond the all-or-nothing approach seen at the two countries’ second summit in Hanoi in February.
The U.S. has in recent weeks signaled to the North that it is open to a more flexible approach, through the firing of hardline National Security Advisor John Bolton and through Trump’s remarks that a “new method” could be explored in diplomacy between the two countries.
“North Korea has made it clear in the last few weeks that it would not return to talks unless the U.S. accepts the ‘phase-by-phase approach,'” Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“That it agreed to hold the talks indicates that Trump’s ‘new method’ is a form of the ‘phase-by-phase approach’ North Korea has called for in the last year.”
DETAILS OF A DEAL?
But it remains unclear what, precisely, such a compromise might involve, especially given continued deep disagreements between the two countries.
“The two sides will haggle over sanctions relief and limited (probably very limited) steps in the general direction of denuclearization and peace,” Frank Jannuzi, a former senior U.S. official dealing with North Korea, told NK News.
“For example, DPRK may offer a freeze on fissile material production at Yongbyon in exchange for suspension (with snap back) of certain sanctions on exports and/or imports,” he added.
How feasible any deal might be within the framework of working-level talks, given what some observers say is the possibility that the negotiations are merely a precursor to a much-discussed third summit between the two countries’ leaders, also remains unclear.
“Ultimately, these talks won’t produce real results unless we address the underlying problems that have led the United States and North Korea to an impasse time and again — the inability to demonstrate the creativity and flexibility necessary on key issues like sanctions relief,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department East Asia desk officer, told NK News.
“If the two sides can’t achieve that, we will most likely see a continued reliance on summit diplomacy to keep this process afloat and little tangible impact on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities,” he added.
TIME IS RUNNING OUT
But, one expert said, time constraints and domestic political concerns may force both the U.S. and North Korea to accept what’s been described as a “small deal,” in which the two countries accept a more short-term agreement.
“Both sides need some kind of agreement, no matter how partial, imperfect, and short-lived,” Andrei Lankov, a director at the Korea Risk Group — which owns and operates NK News — said.
“Donald Trump needs some agreement which can be presented to voters as proof of his diplomatic skills and confirmation that he basically can be a peacemaker,” he continued.
“The North Koreans would like to have sanctions partially lifted. In the long run, the current situation is not sustainable.”
Despite this, Lankov stressed, observers must be “realistic” about what to expect.
“The coming talks will not be about denuclearization, or a roadmap to denuclearization, even though this is how many interested parties will present them,” he said.
“The actual result, no matter what diplomats on both sides will tell you, will be about arms control and not about disarmament,” he continued.
“Most likely, the North Koreans will agree to dismantle or merely freeze (big difference!) some of their nuclear facilities, and in exchange, they will get partial relaxation of the sanctions regime.”
But such a “small deal” — politically expedient as it may be — could carry more threats further down the line, another expert warned.
“Mutual concessions, e.g., North Korea shutting down Yongbyon in return for partial suspension of sanctions, sounds practical,” Sung-yoon Lee, a North Korea watcher at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told NK News.
“But it’s a ruse for buying more time,” he said. “North Korea enriched uranium while having frozen its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon per the 1994 Geneva Accord.”
“Two nuclear steps forward with one small step backward while getting partial sanctions relief is an attractive proposition for Pyongyang.”
Additional reporting by Dagyum Ji and Jacob Fromer.
Featured image: Stockholm by xiquinhosilva on 2010-05-02 08:29:35