Of course, talk is cheap. Maybe the North Korean government pronouncement on denuclearization was just a ploy, although any seasoned analyst of Pyongyang’s policies would note that its government statements are not issued lightly. And indeed, in the private meetings, the North Korean officials actually laid out a concrete plan to achieve denuclearization.
Not surprisingly, for the North Koreans, the key to denuclearization was that the United States had to end its “hostile policy.” That demand sounds vague to many Americans, but in fact, the North Koreans have made it quite clear on a number of occasions what ending a “hostile policy” would entail: stopping political, security, and economic confrontation in return for eliminating their nuclear weapons. The “political” part means U.S. recognition of North Korea as a sovereign state through establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. (As the North Koreans pointed out, theirs is one of the few states in the international community that the U.S. has never recognized, which they see as a clear sign of its true intention to overthrow the regime.) The security part would involve ending the state of war that has existed on the Korean peninsula since the 1950s by replacing the temporary armistice agreement ending the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty. Finally, the economic part would consist of lifting trade restrictions and sanctions imposed on the North over the decades since the Korean War.
The North Koreans saw all these elements being integrated into a phased approach. In each phase, the two sides would take simultaneous steps leading to the final outcome: the end of hostility and denuclearization. The North Koreans visualized a straightforward three-stage process for their own side of the equation—freezing their nuclear program, disabling key facilities, and finally dismantling not only those facilities but their nuclear weapons as well.
The North Korean plan was encouraging, but there were potential problems. First, to get the process rolling, the North Koreans wanted the United States to declare up front all the steps it was willing to take during each phase of denuclearization to show its intention to remove its “hostile policy.” In return, the North would initially freeze its nuclear program. However, when the American delegation explained that such a declaration would be problematic, since it would require that the United States lay out all the steps it was willing to take without the North doing the same, the North Koreans indicated they would be willing to consider a bilateral declaration of reciprocal commitments. (In fact, that sounds like an ideal outcome for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit.)
Second, North Korean willingness to consider an initial freeze on all of its nuclear capabilities—not just testing but also production of bomb-making material—was intriguing but raised other problems. Such a freeze would be a big step forward, since it would prevent the North from producing more weapons-grade material and help set the stage for dismantling its weapons. But it would also require extensive on-site measures to verify that the North wasn’t hiding any facilities that could help produce new bombs. When the American team raised verification requirements, the North Koreans acknowledged that this would be a big problem, and noted “we are going to need a creative approach, because just saying it’s a problem isn’t going to be helpful.” Indeed, previous negotiations during the Bush administration had foundered over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to accept such measures.