The United States and North Korea are about to hold working-level talks for the first time in months this weekend. To end the stalemate, the Trump administration plans to propose a deal to move forward on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program — and it’s less than the all-or-nothing approach Washington has taken so far.
Here’s the offer, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations: The United Nations would suspend sanctions on Pyongyang’s textile and coal exports for 36 months in exchange for the verifiable closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and another measure, most likely the end of North Korea’s uranium enrichment.
It’s a risky but reasonable move, experts tell me. Reasonable because asking North Korea to completely dismantle its nuclear program before receiving sanctions relief — as the Trump administration has since the start of nuclear talks — was likely always going to be rejected by Pyongyang. What’s more, Yongbyon is the “heart” of the country’s nuclear program and tearing down its many facilities would greatly blunt Kim Jong Un’s arsenal.
It’s a risky proposal, though, because North Korea could continue to improve its weaponry over the three-year period. Experts in the US and South Korea also say it will take much more than three years to verifiably destroy all the nuclear facilities, documents, and other materials at Yongbyon — assuming international inspectors are granted the requisite access at all.
It’s unclear if North Korean negotiators will accept this offer. When President Donald Trump met Kim in Hanoi earlier this year, Kim wanted nearly all sanctions lifted in exchange for Yongbyon’s closure. This proposal sees fewer penalties suspended while Kim would have to give more away.
That said, it’s possible US negotiators will use the offer as a starting point and see how their counterparts respond, though of course American diplomats may alter the proposal between now and the weekend.
It’s unlikely anything will be finalized, though, until Trump and Kim meet for yet another summit. Trump said two weeks ago that he could meet with the dictator again “soon.”
But what will further complicate matters is that North Korea has visibly grown frustrated with the US handling of nuclear talks — and it’s made a bad situation even worse.
Trump made promises to Kim that he didn’t keep
North Korea launched what appears to be a submarine-launched missile on Tuesday night, which flew further than any other projectile in two years. It’s a sign that Pyongyang is angry with the lack of progress, and there may be a good reason why.
According to two sources, Trump made two concrete promises to Kim during their June summit at the Panmunjom peace village at the inter-Korean border. First, Trump reiterated his vow to sign an end-of-war declaration that would formally say the US and North Korea are no longer at war. That’s a fairly simple step to take, as it recognizes both countries haven’t fought since the 1950s and it would give Kim the ability to tell US-skeptics at home that he might not need as big a nuclear arsenal.
But the second promise may have mattered much more: Trump told Kim that he’d cancel a joint military exercise with South Korea planned just weeks after third summit. Trump has long questioned the need for those drills, mainly because he thinks they’re too big and the US spends a lot of money on them. But after multiple military aides told Trump that the Dong Maeng exercise was really a smaller-scale simulation, he relented and let it take place August.
Pyongyang had warned ahead of time that both nations shouldn’t proceed. “The US is attempting to stage joint military drills ‘DongMaeng 19-2’ with South Korea, violating the commitment made at the top level,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on July 16. It’s very possible the “top level” refers to Trump.
Which means that North Korea’s decision to conduct its most aggressive test in two years may in part have been a message to the president: do what you promised — or else.
The White House and State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.