A top Trump administration official has all but admitted that the US stance toward North Korea talks is now a hardline one. What this means, some analysts say, is that the American position will sink any chance for progress in US-North Korea negotiations over ending its nuclear program.
A senior State Department official made a stunning remark when asked if the Trump administration agrees on how to handle the complexities of talks with North Korea: “Nobody in the administration advocates a step-by-step approach,” the official said. “In all cases, the expectation is a complete denuclearization of North Korea as a condition for all the other steps … being taken.” In other words, for Pyongyang to receive any kind of benefits like sanctions relief, it has to dismantle its entire nuclear arsenal first.
“Only through practical reciprocal steps will we get closer to denuclearization & peace and away from dangerous & irresponsible ‘fire & fury’ threats,” Arms Control Association Director Daryl Kimball also tweeted.
Here’s why analysts closely following the US-North Korea drama are so worried: Pyongyang for years has said that the only way it would consider giving up its nuclear weapons is through a step-by-step process where both sides offer reciprocal, commensurate concessions. By resolving smaller disagreements, like lifting sanctions in exchange for the closure of an important nuclear facility, over time the US and North Korea would eventually arrive at the grand prize: the end of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat.
This abrupt change in tone isn’t trivial. The North Koreans pay very close attention to any and all statements coming from the US government, and what they just heard is that the US wants “all or nothing.” It’s therefore possible that Pyongyang will get angry at the new rhetoric, thereby threatening the future of negotiations and possibly putting both nations back on the path to war.
“That could very well backfire,” says Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for the National Interest, by enticing Pyongyang “to push back with an intercontinental ballistic missile test in the coming weeks.”
Perhaps by indicating that the US will play hardball from here on out, the US aims to have North Korea moderate its own hardline position.
What’s clear, though, is that this statement won’t be taken kindly by the Kim regime. The US may want to continue negotiations, but comments like the official’s yesterday threaten to end them.