By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- The leaders of North Korea and the United States will engage in pivotal negotiations next week, as they are under pressure to yield a concrete denuclearization agreement to silence skeptics of the nascent peace process.
In the two-day summit with Kim Jong-un, North Korea's all-powerful ruler, to open on Feb. 27 in Vietnam, President Donald Trump will take a chance on Kim's stated denuclearization commitment.
Kim, a relatively young leader reportedly educated in Europe, will try to coax the self-styled master negotiator into concessions on sanctions and security assurances. He's expected to enumerate what his regime has done, halting missile and nuclear provocations, demolishing a nuclear-testing zone in Punggye-ri and repatriating the remains of American service members.
The name of the game is striking a deal on specific action plans, beyond partial and reversible confidence-building steps, to follow up through their Singapore accord from eight months earlier.
Kim and Trump agreed in June to set up new relations between their countries, build a lasting peace regime in Korea and work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Apparently, they are eager to write a new history with a compromise that will amaze the world.
"There could be a more surprising agreement than thought," Kim Joon-hyung, professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said. "Above all, specific measures should come out now that (the peace process) is certain to lose momentum in case there is no breakthrough this time."
He added Trump wouldn't have announced the date and venue for the high-stakes summit without a significant narrowing of differences on key agenda items.
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, visited Pyongyang in early February for talks with his counterpart, Kim Hyok-chol. They are expected to have another round of preparatory consultations this week.
A potential setback is a lingering shortage of mutual trust, divergent views on the sequencing of phased give-and-take steps and even a gap on the definition of a nuclear-free Korea.
For Kim, the Yongbyon nuclear complex, arguably the heart of the North's longstanding plutonium production and uranium enrichment activities, is seen as an ace card.
He may offer additional measures, including an on-site inspection by outside experts of the Punggye-ri area and the Tongchang-ri missile test site, which appears to have been dismantled at least partially.
It's uncertain what price Trump will set for the North's shutdown of the aged Yongbyon facilities, which requires verification as well.
Among Trump's bargaining chips are the declaration of a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, for which the two Koreas have longed, the establishment of a liaison office in Pyongyang and the expansion of humanitarian assistance.
He may also offer to allow cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two sides and suspend plans for this year's combined military exercises with South Korea.
The question is whether the North's leader will be satisfied, as he wants the immediate relaxation or lifting of economic sanctions applied to his impoverished nation. Kim is desperate to spur his five-year economic development strategy.
Public concern here has grown that Trump might have lowered the bar in pursuit of a small deal, rather than a big deal. South Koreans are also sensitive to the possibility of Trump putting the future of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) on the negotiating table. There's a view that the North's version of denuclearization includes the pullout of the so-called U.S. nuclear umbrella from the peninsula.
"I'm in no rush for speed. We just don't want testing," Trump told reporters at the White House last week. He pointed out that the North is no longer testing nuclear bombs and missiles. He claimed a war was looming during the Obama era.
In the early stages of negotiations with North Korea, Trump administration officials talked openly about the need for the secretive country to provide a list of its nuclear weapons, related facilities and personnel as a basic part of verification and a timetable on denuclearization.
Some observers said Washington may be instead focusing on getting rid of nuclear reactors in Yongbyon and bringing some intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) out of North Korea.
"The main (U.S.) aim of the upcoming talks seems to be dismantling the Yongbyon (facilities) via a thorough declaration and verification process," Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said. "It's also likely to regard one step forward from each agreement in the comprehensive previous joint statement as okay."
Skeptics say it could be a safe bet that Trump will sign another vaguely worded joint statement and hype his summit performance, while letting diplomats handle thorny and complicated details and keeping dialogue alive.
If that is the case, he will face an outcry from critics who believe the North has kept its nuclear and missile program running amid the "top-down" approach.
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