If North Korea denuclearizes boldly and quickly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, the US would take steps to help North Korea enjoy prosperity on the level with the South. The remark is kindling hopes about a “grand bargain” with just one month left before to the North Korea-US summit on June 12.
By eagerly dangling economic incentives before North Korea, the US appears to be shifting from its previous stance of “maximum pressure” to “maximum conciliation.”
“If Chairman Kim chooses the right path there is a future brimming with peace and prosperity for the North Korean people,” Pompeo said during a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha after the two met at the State Department in Washington on May 11.
“If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearize, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on the par with our South Korean friends,” he added.
“The United States looks forward to continued close cooperation with our South Korean allies on this issue and many others,” Pompeo said. “America’s track record of support for the Korean people is second to none.”
Pompeo’s remarks are notable since they were made after he returned from his second meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on May 9 and since they come on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s announcement that the North Korea-US summit will be held in Singapore on June 12.
They also coincide with a number of positive signals from North Korea, including remarks by Kim following his meeting with Pompeo about “President Trump’s new alternative” and “a satisfactory agreement” and the announcement of the shutdown of the North’s nuclear test site at Punggye Village from May 23 to 25, which will be open to members of the international press.
“[Kim and I] talked about the fact that America has often in history had adversaries who we are now close partners with, and our hope that we could achieve the same with respect to North Korea,” Pompeo said.
“Peace and prosperity” in particular were keywords in the “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula” that was produced during the inter-Korean summit on Apr. 27. While the US had emphasized “maximum pressure” against North Korea, more recently it has been shifting the spotlight to its commitment to supporting North Korea, such as in Pompeo’s remark on May 9 that “we are hopeful that we can work together to [. . .] make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.”
Given the outcomes of several meetings with North Korea and the inter-Korean summit, there seems to be movement toward a grand bargain that will actively accommodate North Korea’s wishes on economic issues and regime security. This also suggests that the two sides are nearing a compromise between the “all-inclusive solution” that the US is seeking in regard to CVID (complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization) and the “gradual and simultaneous reciprocal measures” that North Korea has proposed.
Pompeo said that he and Kim had been “trying our best to make sure that we were communicating clearly, that we had a shared understanding about what our mutual objectives were.” He also emphasized once again that achieving denuclearization “will require a robust verification program and one that we will undertake with partners around the world.”
“There appears to be progress on preparations to make the summit a success. The appearance of the word ‘prosperity’ [in Pompeo’s remarks] may be a nod to North Korea’s decision to switch its national policy from the ‘two-track’ nuclear and economic development program to focusing all its energy on the economy,” said Wi Seong-rak, former South Korean senior envoy to the Six-Party Talks, when asked about Pompeo’s remarks.
More specifically, there appears to be progress on reducing the timeframe for denuclearization, as the US has requested. “What the US wants from North Korea is to shorten the timeline for denuclearization. In exchange, it appears to have agreed to relax sanctions and to arrange assistance for North Korea from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and other international financial bodies,” said Koo Kab-woo, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“The US appears to have agreed to relax sanctions on the condition that North Korea accepts inspections on the level desired by the US. ‘Economic support’ means that North Korea could receive aid from foreign countries and the IMF and investment from South Korea, China and Japan if it normalizes relations with the US, as in the Vietnam model,” said Kim Joon-hyung, professor at Handong Global University.
Possible easing of sanctions
The US has placed its own sanctions not only on North Korea but also on individuals and banks in other countries that do business with the North. Through more than ten resolutions adopted between 2006 and 2017, the United Nations has also placed various sanctions on North Korea that restrict the North’s supply of crude oil and refined oil products and ban the import of North Korean mineral resources and marine products. The UN sanctions could also be eased or ended under American leadership.
“Considering that South Korea, North Korea and the US are all determined to reach a swift breakthrough, progress will occur much faster than with any past agreement about the nuclear program,” a senior official in the South Korean government told reporters in regard to the timeframe for denuclearization.
The US wants denuclearization to be completed by the end of 2020 at the latest, during Trump’s term in office. When asked during an interview on PBS whether it would be possible for North Korea to carry out irreversible denuclearization during Trump’s first term in office, Brian Hook, director of policy planning for the State Department, said that it was indeed possible.
Some experts suggest that Pompeo’s remarks should not be interpreted too broadly.
“The US will probably bring up the issues of chemical and biological weapons and human rights in addition to denuclearization. Pompeo’s remarks should be taken as a message that economic sanctions can be gradually ended rather than a promise to reward North Korea economically and permanently guarantee its regime,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
By Hwang Joon-bum and Noh Ji-won, staff reporters, and Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent