Biegun’s team and their North Korean counterparts had made serious headway on other commitments from the Singapore summit—through measures such as declaring an end to the Korean War, opening liaison offices in each other’s capitals, and providing North Korea with an economic-incentives package—but had to set all that aside amid the impasse on denuclearization.
North Korean officials, “when they meet with us again, must be empowered to be able to negotiate on all of the issues,” Biegun said, noting that the Vietnam summit “underscored the necessity for sustained working-level negotiations between our two sides.” Broaching denuclearization isn’t a precondition for resuming these lower-level talks, he stressed, “but it’s definitely the pathway to success for us.”
Read: Why does Donald Trump keep praising Kim Jong Un?
So far, however, this problematic history appears to be repeating itself. After the humiliation in Vietnam, the North Koreans shifted into “silence mode” and a “severe [internal policy] review,” one senior South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, told me in April. North Korean officials and state media denounced Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for sabotaging the nuclear talks with their hard-line positions, implying that they considered Trump (and perhaps Biegun, who has thus far escaped Pyongyang’s wrath) as their only viable American interlocutors. Biegun reportedly received no answer to a letter he wrote to Choe Son Hui—a savvy North Korean diplomat with extensive experience dealing with Americans—requesting a resumption of working-level talks. Rumors have swirled about Kim purging members of his negotiating team, and it’s not even clear at this point who Biegun’s counterparts are.
Pompeo and Biegun seemed to want to move from “summit diplomacy” to “process diplomacy,” Yun told me in May, but faced stiff resistance from the North Koreans, who were deploying their traditional tactic of making the United States “desperate for talks, so they are the driver.”
Biegun said last week that there had been direct and indirect communication between the U.S. and North Korean governments, but admitted that since the Vietnam summit, diplomacy had “been in something of a holding pattern.” U.S. officials, he noted, were poring over North Korean government statements and state-media articles to understand Pyongyang’s positions.
What has finally disrupted that holding pattern, just as it did last winter to bring about the Vietnam summit, is another exchange of effusive letters between Trump and Kim. The correspondence, along with a hurried third summit in the demilitarized zone, could provide the necessary spark for rekindling working-level talks; U.S. officials believe the North Koreans are willing to take “meaningful and verifiable steps on denuclearization,” according to Biegun, so long as they “proceed in context with broader discussions of security guarantees and improved overall relations.” (The North Koreans appear more interested in sanctions relief than in security guarantees and improved relations. The Trump administration, however, has given little indication that it is prepared to ease sanctions on North Korea, even in a partial and reversible manner, to reward Kim for steps that fall short of total denuclearization.)