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(LEAD) (Yonhap Interview) Trump's 'no rush' remark stresses importance of phased approach: expert

07:09 February 22, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS photo)
By Chang Jae-soon and Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- By saying he's in no rush on North Korea's denuclearization, U.S. President Donald Trump apparently meant that the "Libya model" of unilateral denuclearization won't work and the issue must be resolved in a phase-by-phase manner, a top American expert has said.

In the run-up to next week's second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Trump has repeatedly said that he's in no rush to denuclearize the communist nation and that he's happy as long as there is no weapons testing by the North.

The remarks have sparked concern in South Korea that Trump may be shifting the focus away from denuclearization as long as threats to the U.S. are under control or that he may be lowering expectations for the Feb. 27-28 summit with Kim in Vietnam.

"I think what he's trying to say is that he realizes that John Bolton's Libya model is not going to work and I think that is a very realistic view," Joel Wit, founder of 38 North, a U.S. website specializing in North Korea analysis, said of Trump's remarks.

The "Libya model" calls for North Korea to give up its nuclear program first before it can receive any rewards or concessions. Bolton, Trump's national security advisor, once advocated the idea, sparking strong complaints from Pyongyang.

"What he's trying to say is that the model that U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun outlined in his Stanford speech of phase-by-phase denuclearization is the right way to go," Wit said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Thursday. "I think that's what President Trump is trying to say and he probably didn't have the right words for that."

Joel Wit, founder of 38 North, a U.S. website specializing in North Korea analysis, speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul on Feb. 21, 2019. (Yonhap)

Wit, a former State Department official involved in nuclear negotiations with the North, forecast that at next week's summit, the communist regime could agree to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and even more.

"The U.S. special representative said a few weeks ago that the North Koreans have already agreed to do that. So if that's recorded in the summit declaration, I think that will be a very significant step forward, but even just dismantling Yongbyon I think will be an important step forward," he said.

The North's leader said after September's summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he's willing to permanently dismantle Yongbyon's nuclear facilities depending on what "corresponding measures" the U.S. will take to reciprocate Pyongyang's denuclearization steps.

Biegun said in his Stanford speech on Jan. 31 that the North Koreans have expressed a willingness to do "more" than dismantling Yongbyon.

Wit said that even if the summit produces such an agreement, it will be the beginning of a long process.

"There are a lot of details that need to be filled in, and the details will be filled in by negotiators, so if we're talking about dismantling Yongbyon, for example, then you need an agreement of how do you dismantle Yongbyon, who dismantles, who pays for it -- it is not going to be free, it's very expensive. You need a much more detailed agreement for how to do that," he said.

Wit also praised President Moon for his offer to resume the South's economic cooperation with North Korea so as to help accelerate the denuclearization process.

"I think it's wonderful that he offered that. It could help a lot," he said, adding that the U.S. is "becoming more flexible in terms of sanctions lifting than it had been."

Establishing liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang would be a significant step, he said.

"The establishment of liaison offices means especially that we recognize North Korea as a state. For North Koreans, that's very important," Wit said. "It will definitely have a positive effect."

Asked if he believes the North's leader has made a strategic decision to give up nuclear programs, Wit said Kim appears to have made a decision to "explore whether he should give up his nuclear weapons program."

"Over time, depending on how this process plays out, he may reach the decision that he can give it up -- safely give it up," he said.

Wit also stressed that inter-Korean exchanges are helpful to the denuclearization process.

"I think they are really helpful -- it's very important. The ideal situation has always been a division of labor between the U.S. and South Korea working together to deal with North Korea," he said. "That's what's happening now, with South Korea more focused on inter-Korean exchanges, on lessening the conventional military confrontation, and the U.S. more focused on nuclear and missile issues. This is the right approach."
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