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A North Korea nuclear deal looks more likely to happen now. Here’s why.

Kim Jong Un said he wants denuclearization by the end of Trump’s first term — but it’s unclear exactly what he means.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un must be happy with the progress he made this week.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un must be happy with the progress he made this week.
South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

The United States, South Korea, and North Korea have been mired in talks for months over how to get Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. But it looks like that may, finally, be changing.

There are a few reasons for that. One sign is that on Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told top South Korean official Chung Eui-yong that he wanted to denuclearize by the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. It’s the first real timetable put forward by the dictator about dismantling his nuclear arsenal. But it’s unclear if Kim meant he seriously wanted to get rid of all of his bombs by that point, or what precisely he would want in return.

Surely Kim and his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, will discuss that during their three-day summit in Pyongyang, which is set to start on September 18. It will be their third meeting in the ongoing talks, which have mainly focused on ending the North’s nuclear threat.

Some friendly words have also been exchanged between Kim and Trump. Kim told Chung that he had never spoken a bad word about Trump and still had faith in the president’s desire for a deal. Trump tweeted his delight with that comment on Thursday.

It’s still possible, of course, that none of this will actually lead to substantive progress in the nuclear talks.

After all, the US and North Korea are still very far apart on how to proceed, especially on the question of who should make the next big concessions. “At some point we need to move away from big gestures to substantive details,” Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, told me about the ongoing negotiations.

Others, though, are optimistic that the past 24 hours means real progress is imminent.

“Generally, the signs are very positive,” a senior South Korean official told me on the condition of anonymity. Having Kim and Moon and meet so soon, and for an extended period of time, means Kim and Chung “agreed on a lot about the way forward” during their conversations this week, he said.

The sticking point is whether a peace declaration or a complete nuclear disclosure comes first

One of the major issues at stake in these talks is how to get North Korea to dismantle its arsenal of weapons. But before that happens, Washington and Seoul want Pyongyang to declare every part of its nuclear program.

That means North Korea would have to let the US know how many missiles and bombs it has, as well as the locations of all of its nuclear facilities. Having an accurate list would enable the US to better monitor whether North Korea is actually dismantling its nuclear program, and how quickly it’s doing so.

The problem is that North Korea is nervous about handing over such a list. If Pyongyang tells the US where all of its nuclear materials are, it makes them more vulnerable to attack. Kim’s regime, which relies in large part on its nuclear program to protect it from external aggression, would be substantially weakened if it started to destroy and dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

Instead, North Korea wants the United States to issue a declaration to end the Korean War, which never officially ended, before it gives up its bombs. The declaration would serve as a tacit promise that America won’t invade North Korea and would give Kim the political cover to end his nuclear program.

Pyongyang is mad that the Trump administration hasn’t signed a peace declaration yet. “The US side should neither insist on ‘denuclearization first and conclusion of a peace treaty next’ nor delay the settlement of the issue of adopting a war-end declaration its president promised during the Singapore DPRK-US summit,” read a Thursday statement from the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run media outlet.

Here’s what North Korea is referring to: Trump told Kim during their Singapore summit that he would soon sign the peace declaration. That, of course, hasn’t happened yet. Instead, the US insists that North Korea remove 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear warheads from the country before talks can move forward.

North Koreans apparently blame America’s negotiators — mainly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — for not keeping their side of the bargain, but still praise Trump because he seems open to a deal. “The present deadlock of the DPRK-US relations demands a bold decision on the part of President Trump,” said an August 18 KCNA statement.

Kim and Moon’s summit two weeks from now will serve in part to break the US-North Korea impasse. But those countries still have an agenda of their own.

What to expect when Kim meets Moon

Experts say the Korean leaders will have two main items on the agenda.

“I would expect the discussion to continue to focus on how to broker the peace declaration and how far South Korea is willing to push forward on economic cooperation with or without American support,” Town, the Stimson Center expert, told me.

That last point is key: Moon has made improving ties with North Korea a key part of his agenda. Helping North Korea’s economy — despite myriad US-led sanctions levied on Pyongyang — is one way he’s doing that.

The senior South Korean official told me Moon will bring up ways to make progress on items in the Panmunjom Declaration, the agreement the Korean leaders signed during their April summit. The first part consists of ways to improve inter-Korean relations — like opening a joint liaison office — before tackling denuclearization issues.

Trump looms large over the Korean talks. To a certain extent, Moon needs Trump’s buy-in as he aims to improve ties with Pyongyang. Without it, the US could complicate ties between the two Koreas.

“Moon has some tough choices ahead of him on the inter-Korean agenda if the US stance on a peace declaration and continuing to impose more sanctions continues,” says Town.