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U.S. And North Korea Resume Working-Levels Talks


The U.S. and North Korea have restarted nuclear talks. The two sides held preliminary talks today in Sweden. The main meeting is tomorrow. These are the first working-level negotiations since February, when President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Vietnam. That summit broke down. There was no deal. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports now from Seoul, there is pressure on both sides to come up with some sort of agreement.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Analysts believe that negotiators will have to begin by picking up the pieces of the deal that fell apart in Hanoi. Then, Kim Jong Un demanded the lifting of key economic sanctions in return for shutting down North Korea's main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. North Korea expert Joel Wit at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., says a new bargain will have to involve some variation on that deal.

JOEL WIT: It's a really tricky process of trying to fine-tune and reach a compromise on both sanctions and the extent of the nuclear restrictions.

KUHN: Analysts believe that Yongbyon's importance makes it the logical first step in any deal.

MOON CHUNG-IN: They account for at least 60% of North Korea's nuclear bomb capability. Why doesn't the U.S. take it? It's a good deal.

KUHN: That's Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korea's president on foreign policy. President Trump thought Kim Jong Un was asking for too much, so he walked out. But Moon says that North Koreans saw shutting Yongbyon as only a first step, and really, he says, that's all it can be.

MOON: You cannot make a complete and final denuclearization of North Korea in verifiable and instant manner. It would take 10, 15 years.

KUHN: Over the past year, the Trump administration has seesawed back and forth, saying one minute that they don't do incremental deals and the next saying they're open to them. Last month, President Trump sent a clear signal by firing the administration's chief opponent of incremental deals, National Security Adviser John Bolton. But Hong Min, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a Seoul-based government think-tank, says it's not just Trump who's under pressure to come up with a meaningful deal.

HONG MIN: (Through interpreter) Many think North Korea just wants incremental steps, but North Korea also needs political confirmation of a comprehensive deal, and they have come to recognize that they need to give that to the U.S.

KUHN: Hong believes these talks should produce concrete results, and he thinks the motivations of the two countries' leaders are important. Kim Jong Un will want to show folks back home that he's won security assurances from the U.S., Hong argues, and he sure won't want to return empty-handed from another summit as he did from Hanoi. Presidential adviser Moon Chung-in is similarly optimistic.

MOON: There is a political will of the leaders. Both President Trump, Chairman Kim Jong Un want to have a deal. Once leaders are committed, yes, both can make significant concessions.

KUHN: But time is running out, at least by Pyongyang's clock. Kim has given Trump until year's end to come to the table with a better deal or North Korea will give up on the U.S. and look for a new path. The impeachment inquiry against President Trump and next year's election could make Pyongyang wary of any offer the U.S. makes, says the Stimson Center's Joel Wit.

WIT: And so they may build into their negotiating position certain requirements that would give them some assurance that a deal would last even if Trump doesn't.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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