On Thursday, the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, will meet in Berlin with Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative on peace and security, and other representatives from the European Union to “advance our shared efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea” according to a State Department press release.
The Berlin meeting, which will occur in advance of the anticipated resumption of direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea later this month, represents an important preliminary step forward in rebuilding consensus on denuclearization. It follows the collapse of a round of talks in Hanoi during the February 2019 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Premier Kim Jong Un.
The Hanoi talks faltered over North Korean objections to the U.S.’s hardline position regarding the pace of denuclearization, and the U.S.’s refusal to consider easing sanctions linked to North Korea’s nuclear program prior to the complete, verified elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons program. North Korea accused the U.S. of negotiating in bad faith and put President Trump on notice that it would no longer work with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or national security adviser John Bolton. Moreover, it gave the U.S. until the end of the year to resolve the composition of its negotiating team and the substance of its negotiating position.
On June 30, President Trump conducted an impromptu meeting with Kim Jong Un along the border between North and South Korea, greeting him with a smile and a handshake before crossing over to the North Korean side—a symbolic first by a sitting U.S. president. He and Kim then retired to a building inside the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea for a 50-minute private talk. While the substance of their talk remains unknown, President Trump hinted at its gist in a press conference afterward, where he appointed Biegun as the new U.S. chief negotiator for denuclearization talks, thereby acceding to the demands of North Korea regarding Pompeo and Bolton.
Even more interesting were leaks from the White House that the U.S. might accept a “freeze” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a preliminary step toward denuclearization, and that there could be a gradual easing of economic sanctions as the North Koreans made progress toward the total elimination of their nuclear weapons program.