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Wall Street Journal / News

New North Korea Solution Emerges: A Down Payment on Denuclearization

A partial surrender of nuclear arms and missiles by North Korea could help break a deadlock between Washington and Pyongyang over how to begin the process of denuclearization.

A television in Seoul, South Korea, this month shows U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

A partial surrender of nuclear arms and missiles by North Korea could help break a deadlock between Washington and Pyongyang over how to begin the process of denuclearization, under a solution proposed by a senior U.S. official and an adviser to the South Korean president.

The idea is intended to bridge a gap between the U.S. position that North Korea denuclearize before it receives economic benefits and Pyongyang’s desire for a phased process with each side making concessions in stages.

The distance between the two sides was highlighted Wednesday when North Korea angrily rejected the path toward denuclearization proposed by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton. That approach, known as the Libya model, calls for North Korea to relinquish all of its nuclear weapons before it receives economic help and other benefits.

Kim Kye Gwan, a North Korean vice foreign minister, called the proposal a “sinister move” aimed at regime collapse, and threatened that Pyongyang might pull out of a summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled for June 12.

The U.S. didn’t respond directly to North Korea’s concerns about the process of denuclearization, but at a Wall Street Journal conference in Tokyo this week, the U.S.’s top diplomat for East Asia indicated a synchronized process might be acceptable if North Korea began with a “big down payment.”

“The question is what could be front-loaded in a process that’s inevitably going to go on for some time, and then what would be acceptable to the North Korean side in return for that front-loading,” said Susan Thornton, acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

The Trump administration has resisted the idea of a gradual process of North Korean denuclearization because previous similar efforts have failed. In recent decades, Pyongyang has stalled on weapons elimination while it received payoffs such as oil deliveries. In each case, the agreements failed and North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials say they won’t repeat those mistakes and want a rapid denuclearization by North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has twice held recent talks with Mr. Kim, has expressed optimism that the regime is sincere about denuclearization, but details on the process have been scarce ahead of the June summit.

Speaking at the same Journal event this week, Moon Chung-in, a special adviser for unification, foreign and security affairs to South Korea’s president, said the gap between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization can be overcome by initial major concessions by the North Korean leader.

“I’m hoping Kim Jong Un can give a big gift to President Trump,” he said, suggesting North Korea hand over nuclear warheads or missiles to the U.S. “That kind of gesture can convince American citizens that North Korea is really serious about dismantling [its entire program].”

Top diplomats and government officials discuss risks, hopes and the future of North Korean relations at the WSJ CEO Council in Tokyo ahead of the planned Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore.

Mr. Moon advises South Korean President Moon Jae-in but doesn’t represent the government. South Korean authorities haven’t outlined how they foresee a denuclearization process taking place.

North Korea hasn’t commented on the idea of an initial surrender of some of its weapons. It says its priority is to ensure its own security and remove the threat of nuclear attack by the U.S.

A deal in which North Korea gives up some of its weapons as a first step could still fall apart without achieving full denuclearization. But one person familiar with U.S. State Department thinking said that it would be meaningful to secure some North Korean weapons in the first phase.

Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, agreed, saying the U.S. could gain valuable direct insight into the North Korean nuclear program. He also said it would help break the diplomatic stalemate. “It’d get the ball rolling on useful dialogue,” he said.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un both say they want denuclearization, but they may have different definitions of the word. WSJ's Shelby Holliday explains.

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