U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun has had a very busy few weeks since the January 18 announcement that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un would hold a second summit by the end of February. He joined Kim Jong-un’s special envoy Kim Yong-chul for meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and with President Trump at the White House, met his newly announced counterpart Kim Hyuk-chul, and flew to Sweden for discussions with North Korea’s Vice Minister Choe Sun-hee. Biegun’s first public speech at Stanford University provides a useful status report regarding where things stand in the midst of working-level talks, only three weeks before Trump and Kim meet for a second time.
Biegun’s speech described how we reached this unique diplomatic moment with North Korea, and provided both markers and sweeteners in his public remarks. Biegun extolled Trump and Kim’s “top-down approach” as potentially transformative, based on Trump’s “consistent willingness to use voice and written word to send positive messages” to Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-un’s stated intention to denuclearize and focus on achieving economic prosperity.
Despite the leader-led political will embodied in the Singapore summit, U.S.-North Korea working-level dialogue stalled out, with tangible progress-to-date on only one item (the return of the remains of 55 U.S. service members from the Korean War). There has been no progress toward new U.S.-North Korea relations, establishment of a permanent Korean peace, or efforts to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula envisaged in the Singapore statement. North Korea has shown welcome self-restraint on nuclear and missile testing, but U.S.-North Korea summitry alone has not yet succeeded in reducing the risks posed by North Korea’s existing nuclear and missile capabilities.
To move forward on the path toward U.S.-DPRK peace and denuclearization, Biegun reiterated U.S. willingness to pursue the objectives of the Singapore statement “simultaneously and in parallel.” Such an approach requires the United States and North Korea to sync up the peace and denuclearization processes with a roadmap of negotiations and declarations that include concrete deliverables for both sides. The establishment of such a process is the minimum that many analysts expected to emerge from the Singapore summit, and the process has now become the essential deliverable for the second Trump-Kim summit to be regarded as a success.
The other big marker Biegun laid down in his Stanford speech referenced the specific elements the U.S. expects to achieve as part of final, fully-verified denuclearization. Specifically, Biegun stated that the U.S. will not settle for a process that allows only for international inspection of non-critical parts of North Korea’s nuclear program such as Yongbyun and Tongchang-ri, but rather anticipates a process that can only be final when it provides a “complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean weapons of mass destruction programs.” This process will involve a comprehensive declaration and the elimination of WMDs and their means of delivery and production.
This marker is important because the U.S. initially sought a comprehensive declaration from North Korea (a view of the entire pie), but Kim Jong-un through the Pyongyang Declaration delivered a counter-offer, the internationally verified inspection of non-essential Yongbyun (a slice of pie) conditioned upon U.S. delivery of unspecified corresponding measures. By providing greater detail regarding the U.S. definition of final, fully-verified denuclearization, Biegun is showing flexibility on where to start with North Korea, but is indicating that the U.S. will not give up its demand that North Korea relinquish the whole pie.
To achieve this objective, Special Representative Biegun has offered a wide range of sweeteners, including President Trump’s willingness to end the Korean War and the U.S. willingness to discuss a wide range of measures to build mutual trust, normalize relations, establish permanent peace, and bolster prospects for North Korea’s economy to achieve a “bright future, driven by investment, external engagement, and trade.” Biegun indicated his willingness to discuss these sweeteners in greater detail in a working-level dialogue with North Korean counterparts this week in Pyongyang. The course of these conversations will likely have a direct impact on the second Trump-Kim summit, and the question of whether the two sides can nudge U.S. and North Korean trajectories into closer alignment.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.