U.S. Nuclear Talks With North Korea Break Down in Hours

Credit…Philip O’Connor/Reuters

The first negotiations in eight months between the Trump administration and North Korea aimed at breaking the logjam over dismantling the North’s nuclear program broke down only hours after they began in Stockholm on Saturday, the North Koreans said.

It was the latest indication that President Trump’s signature diplomatic initiative has stalled.

“The negotiation did not live up to our expectations and broke down,” the chief North Korean negotiator, Kim Myong-gil, said, according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. Mr. Kim added that the United States had arrived “empty-handed” and had “not discarded its old stance and attitude.”

The State Department, in a carefully worded statement, did not say the long-awaited session failed, and warned that the “early comments” from the North “do not reflect the content or the spirit of today’s 8 1/2 hour discussion.” The statement continued: “The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions” with its North Korean counterparts, without specifying what they were.

Eager not to be cast as the obstacle to progress, the State Department also said its delegation previewed new proposals not only on denuclearization, but on other elements of the talks, which include a commitment to finding a formal end to the Korean War. State Department officials did not say how the North Korean negotiating team reacted.

Despite the rosy statement from the American side, it remained clear that discussions — which Mr. Trump had said were imminent after he briefly met Mr. Kim in the Demilitarized Zone in late June — got nowhere. And although the American negotiators said they were willing to come back in two weeks, the North Koreans made no such statement.

The talks were the first detailed discussion between the two countries since Mr. Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, walked away from a summit meeting in Hanoi in February.

The outcome on Saturday was hardly surprising. Despite Mr. Trump’s frequent optimistic statements about his relationship with Mr. Kim and what he has termed Mr. Kim’s “beautiful letters” to him, the North has accelerated its testing of missiles and added to its stockpile of nuclear fuel.

In Washington, administration officials have struggled with how to lure the North back into a productive discussion without giving up so many sanctions that the Trump administration would lose negotiating leverage.

One objective of the new talks, according to some administration officials, was to test new proposals that would amount to a temporary freeze of nuclear activity, so that the North’s capability did not increase while the talks drag on. Mr. Trump’s failure to negotiate a freeze when he first met Mr. Kim in Singapore in June 2018 — the first meeting between an American president and a North Korean leader — is considered by many experts to be a key flaw in his negotiating approach.

A Vox report suggested the American negotiating team would call for a three-year suspension of United Nations sanctions on North Korean coal and textiles in return for shuttering a major nuclear site and halting some types of fuel production.

It is not clear if the new talks even broached these or other proposals in any detail. The State Department’s chief negotiator, Stephen Biegun, has said little about the specifics of American proposals, other than making it clear they involved a more step-by-step approach to denuclearization than the all-or-nothing strategy Mr. Trump had used. In Singapore 15 months ago, Mr. Trump said he was confident the denuclearization process would be well on its way within six months. It has not started.

In recent days one of Mr. Trump’s former national security advisers, John R. Bolton, delivered a stinging appraisal of Mr. Trump’s approach without ever naming the president, who fired him a month ago.

Mr. Bolton said he believed that Mr. Kim had no intention of ever giving up his weapons, a statement largely in accord with years of American intelligence estimates dating to before Mr. Trump was elected. Mr. Bolton added that there was little use in the negotiations. Mr. Bolton was excluded from the talks at the end of his time in office, apparently because Mr. Trump believed Mr. Bolton’s hawkish views were more likely to lead to a conflict than to a negotiated settlement.

“I don’t think the North Koreans will ever voluntarily give up enough” to make the negotiations fruitful, Mr. Bolton said last Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There is no basis to trust any promise that regime makes.”

Mr. Trump’s theory has been that the issue can be solved only by direct meetings between the leaders of the two nations, since decades of lower-level talks either broke down or resulted in agreements that fractured apart within a few years.

The most notable success came from a 1994 agreement struck by the Clinton administration, more than a decade before the North tested its first nuclear device. Even that agreement fell apart soon after President Bush was inaugurated, after the United States and South Korea caught the North secretly pursuing uranium enrichment, one of the two pathways to building a nuclear weapon. Every effort that followed collapsed more quickly.

Mr. Kim, sensing Mr. Trump’s desire for summit meetings that attract intense coverage, may be betting that Mr. Trump needs a breakthrough before next year’s American presidential election. As a result, he may be testing to see how little of his program he can give up in return for the Trump administration agreeing to lift the onerous sanctions that have squeezed North Korea’s export revenues for the past three years.

In Hanoi, Mr. Kim proposed closing down the country’s main nuclear production facility at Yongbyon in return for an end to those sanctions. Mr. Trump, while tempted to accept the deal, was persuaded otherwise by Mr. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he would be accused of leaving the North with production facilities outside of the Yongbyon plant, and with an arsenal of 30 to 60 weapons.

The two leaders walked away from Hanoi, Mr. Kim’s negotiators were fired, and talks were in abeyance until the new team arrived in Stockholm on Friday.

It is possible they will resume soon, after this initial testing of the waters. But in an essay posted on the Foreign Affairs website, Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang, two North Korea experts, note that “Pyongyang has set a very clear deadline — the end of this calendar year — for getting negotiations back on track and for the United States to moderate its position.”

After that, they suggest, Mr. Kim could be back to intense testing, betting that Mr. Trump would not risk a conflict in the midst of a presidential campaign.

Read More