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In New Talks, U.S. May Settle for a Nuclear Freeze by North Korea

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  • By- The New York Times

From a seemingly fanciful tweet to a historic step into North Korean territory, President Trump’s largely improvised third meeting on Sunday with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, was a masterpiece of drama, the kind of made-for-TV spectacle that Mr. Trump treasures.

But for weeks before the meeting, which started as a Twitter offer by the president for Mr. Kim to drop by at the Demilitarized Zone and “say hello,” a real idea has been taking shape inside the Trump administration that officials hope might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations.

The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for.

It falls far short of Mr. Trump’s initial vow 30 months ago to solve the North Korea nuclear problem, but it might provide him with a retort to campaign-season critics who say the North Korean dictator has been playing the American president brilliantly by giving him the visuals he craves while holding back on real concessions.

American negotiators would seek to expand on Mr. Kim’s offer in Hanoi in February to give up the country’s main nuclear-fuel production site, at Yongbyon, in return for the most onerous sanctions against the country being lifted. Mr. Trump, under pressure from his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser, John R. Bolton, rejected that proposal, because so much of the North’s capability now lies outside the vast Yongbyon complex.
The idea now is to get Mr. Kim’s new negotiating team to agree to expand the definition of the Yongbyon site well beyond its physical boundaries. If successful — and there are many obstacles, including the North accepting intrusive, perhaps invasive inspections — it would effectively amount to a nuclear freeze that keeps North Korea from making new nuclear material.

But a senior United States official involved in North Korean policy said there was no way to know if North Korea would agree to this. In the past, he said, its negotiators have insisted that only Mr. Kim himself could define what dismantling Yongbyon meant.

To make any deal work, the North would have to agree to include many facilities around the country, among them a covert site called Kangson, which is outside Yongbyon and is where American and South Korean intelligence agencies believe the country is still producing uranium fuel.

A president embarking on a re-election campaign — and who complained repeatedly on Sunday that he receives no credit from the media for de-escalating tensions with North Korea and for the freeze on underground nuclear tests and test-launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles — would most likely cast this as a victory, as another restraint on Mr. Kim. It would help Mr. Trump argue that he is making progress, albeit slowly, on one of the world’s most intractable crises.

And it would be progress after three face-to-face meetings — first in Singapore a little more than a year ago, then in Hanoi, then in an hourlong discussion at the DMZ on Sunday — that have produced warm exchanges but no shared definitions of what it meant to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. A year after that first meeting, the North has yet to turn over an inventory of what it possesses, claiming that would give the United States a map of military targets.

On Sunday evening, the State Department’s envoy to North Korea, Stephen E. Biegun, said that this account of the ideas being generated in the administration was “pure speculation” and that his team was “not preparing any new proposal currently.”

“What is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate,” he said.

Presumably, Mr. Trump’s freeze would have to be a permanent one, or he will have gotten less from Mr. Kim than President Barack Obama got from Iran in a deal Mr. Trump dismissed as “disastrous.” And even a successful freeze would constitute a major retreat from the goal of the “rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021,” as Mr. Pompeo put it last fall.

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