Misreporting the Trump Administration’s Boffo Break with the Failed North Korea Policy of the Past

Robert Carlin (left) and US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen E. Biegun (right) have a discussion at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. (Photo: L.A. Cicero and Stanford University.)

The US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen R. Biegun broke important new ground on administration policy toward Pyongyang in a far-reaching presentation at Stanford University last Thursday, January 31. You’d never know that from most news accounts that Biegun confirmed Kim Jong Un’s commitment, made at his last meeting with Secretary of State Pompeo, to “dismantle” all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium fissile material production facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere “and more”; reaffirmed statements made by President Trump and Pompeo that the administration was prepared to move step-by-step toward complete denuclearization “simultaneously and in parallel” toward peace in Korea, starting with a peace declaration; and hinted at US willingness to relax some sanctions before complete and verified denuclearization had been achieved and to defer a complete declaration of North Korea’s nuclear assets. In short, Biegun revealed several major shifts in US negotiating positions and most of the press was asleep at the wheel.

Arguably, Biegun’s most important point was completely lost on most reporters: For example, “…[I]n parallel we’re willing to look at a lot of other things that we can do together that also build the confidence and reduce the sense of risk or threat that would potentially drive a country to want to sustain that kind of capacity.”[1] Under probing questioning by long-time North Korea analyst Robert Carlin, he spelled that out:

[W]e have the potential here for a grave threat to the United States of America, and therefore it is all the more urgent that we engage diplomatically with North Korea to see if we can change the trajectory of their policies by changing the trajectory of our own. And that’s what we’re trying to do…I could not have a better mandate. I have four streams of potential cooperation to discuss with North Korea: transforming our relations, building a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, denuclearization, and the fourth, which I’ve addressed briefly here, which is the return of remains from the Korean War— doesn’t involve the same level of negotiation, but should emphasize it’s every bit as important that we heal the wound of that war as part of the process of resolving the larger dispute on the Korean Peninsula. And the good news is we’re making a lot of progress in that regard, as I mentioned. But in the other areas, what’s complicit in that is this is—at the core of this, is denuclearization. It absolutely—the essential test of this is removing the weapons of mass destruction programs in North Korea. But the issue is much larger than that. It’s something of a trite trick in Washington that when you can’t solve the problem, you enlarge the problem, but here the President has embraced it full on. I mean it—excuse me—I don’t mince my words when I say that he is unconstrained by the assumptions of his predecessors. President Trump is ready to end this war. It is over. It is done. We are not going to invade North Korea. We are not seeking to topple the North Korean regime. We need to advance our diplomacy alongside our plans for denuclearization in a manner that sends that message clearly to North Korea as well. We are ready for a different future. It’s bigger than denuclearization….But I am absolutely convinced, and more importantly, the President of the United States is convinced that it’s time to move past 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula. There is no reason for this conflict to persist any longer.[2]

That was the strongest indication yet that Washington has put a peace declaration on the negotiating table.

Biegun characterized this moment as “an inflection point”:

We will sustain the pressure campaign; at the same time, we are trying to advance the diplomatic campaign, and we have to find the right balance between those two. Areas like cultural exchanges or people-to-people initiatives that you described seem to me a very obvious place where we could begin to make progress in that environment.

Ultimately, he made clear, the Trump administration is open to support for North Korea’s economic development:

At the appropriate time, with the completion of denuclearization, we are prepared to explore with North Korea and many other countries the best way to mobilize investment, improve infrastructure, enhance food security, and drive a level of economic engagement that will allow the North Korean people to fully share in the rich future of their Asian neighbors. This prosperity, along with the denuclearization and peace, lies at the core of President Trump’s vision for U.S.-North Korea relations

Instead of focusing on the larger picture, most news accounts emphasized the urgency of obtaining a complete inventory of North Korea’s new nuclear assets. AFP’s Shaun Tandon’s lede read, “A US negotiator called Thursday on North Korea to provide a detailed account of its weapons to seal a peace deal, saying President Donald Trump was ready to offer a future that includes diplomatic relations and economic aid.”

The Reuters lede by David Brunnstrom and Steve Holland had a similar misreading:

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea laid out an extensive list of demands for North Korean denuclearization on Thursday that is likely to anger Pyongyang, even as President Donald Trump said the date and place for a second summit was set and hailed “tremendous progress” in his dealings with the country…Stephen Biegun said North Korea would need to declare all its nuclear and missile programs and warned that Washington had “contingencies” if the diplomatic process failed.

They subsequently toned down the lede, but missed the hints of concessions:

Washington is willing to discuss “many actions” to improve ties and entice Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea said on Thursday, but set out an extensive list of demands for the North, including a full disclosure of its weapons program. In a speech at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, envoy Stephen Biegun did not elaborate on what concessions the United States might make, but said the “corresponding measures” demanded by North Korea would be the subject of talks next week.

The New York Times Edward Wong’s lede got Biegun’s point on the nuclear inventory right:

A top American diplomat signaled on Thursday that the United States might no longer demand that North Korea turn over a complete inventory of its nuclear assets as a first step in the denuclearization process that President Trump is pursuing. The diplomat, Stephen E. Biegun, said in his first public speech that “before the process of denuclearization can be final, we must have a complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean W.M.D. and missile programs through a comprehensive declaration.”[3]

But Wong quoted Biegun as reaffirming administration policy that it would “not lift sanctions until denuclearization is complete.” Biegun said something much more important, “We didn’t say we won’t do anything until you do everything”—implying that the administration was prepared to relax sanctions short of complete denuclearization. That critical offer could open the way to a far-reaching suspension of North Korean production of fissile material and possibly some missiles as well at the Trump-Kim summit meeting.

Some news accounts omitted any reference to Biegun’s detailing of Kim Jong Un’s offer of a significant step toward denuclearization and the US response:

Chairman Kim also committed, in both the joint statement from the aforementioned Pyongyang summit as well as during the Secretary of State’s October meetings in Pyongyang, to the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities. This complex of sites that extends beyond Yongbyon represents the totality of North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs. Chairman Kim qualified next steps on North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities upon the United States taking corresponding measures. Exactly what these measures are are a matter I plan to discuss with my North Korean counterpart during our next set of meetings. From our side, we are prepared to discuss many actions that could help build trust between our two countries and advance further progress in parallel on the Singapore summit objectives of transforming relations, establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula, and complete denuclearization. Finally and importantly, in describing to us their commitment to dismantle and destroy their plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities, the North Koreans have also added the critical words “and more.” This is essential, as there is more—much more—to do beyond these facilities to follow through on the Singapore summit commitment to complete denuclearization.[4]

No North Korean leader had ever previously committed to dismantling all his fissile material production.

Biegun was asked about the Intelligence Community’s estimate, conveyed in congressional testimony last week on its Worldwide Threat Assessment, that “North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” He did not quarrel with this conclusion but with the implication drawn by some news reports that the estimate undercut rather than supported the need for diplomatic give-and-take:

So my frustration isn’t with the accuracy of the information. It’s how it’s presented and how it’s interpreted. You cannot divorce the intelligence information from policy. The intelligence information is critical as an underpinning for the policy, but the policy is to address the threat and that’s what my frustration was last week.[5]

Readers might well share his frustration over the news media’s interpretation.

  1. [1]

    US, Department of State, “Remarks on DPRK at Stanford University,” January 31, 2019, https://www.state.gov/p/eap/rls/rm/2019/01/288702.htm.

  2. [2]

    Ibid. Emphasis added.

  3. [3]

    Edward Wong, “U.S. Signals Less Urgency to Inventory Kim’s Arsenal,” New York Times, January 31, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/31/world/asia/us-north-korea-nuclear.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fedward-wong. Emphasis added.

  4. [4]

    Ibid. [US, Department of State]. Emphasis added.

  5. [5]

    Ibid. Emphasis added.

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