US official’s suggestion of ‘arms-control’ talks with North Korea raises eyebrows

The United States said on Friday that its policy towards North Korea had not changed after a senior US official responsible for nuclear policy raised some eyebrows by saying that Washington would be open to arms control talks with Pyongyang .

Some experts argue that recognizing North Korea as a nuclear-armed state, which Pyongyang is seeking, is a prerequisite for such talks. But Washington has long insisted that North Korea’s nuclear program is illegal and subject to United Nations sanctions.

Bonnie Jenkins, State Department under secretary for arms control, was asked at a nuclear conference in Washington on Thursday whether North Korea should be treated as an arms control problem.

“If they had a conversation with us … arms control can always be an option if you have two countries willing to sit down at a table and talk,” she replied.

“And not just arms control, but risk reduction – everything that leads to a traditional arms control treaty and the different aspects of arms control that we can have with them. We have made it very clear to the DPRK … that we are ready to talk to them – we have no preconditions,” she said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name.

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Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, she said: “If he picked up the phone and said, ‘I want to talk about arms control,’ we’re not going to say no. I think, if anything, we want to explore what that means.”

The United States and its allies are concerned that North Korea could be on the verge of resuming nuclear bomb testing for the first time since 2017, which would be unwelcome to the Biden administration ahead of midterm elections early next month. North Korea has rejected US calls to return to talks.

Asked about Jenkins’ comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “I want to be very clear about this. There has been no change in US policy.”

Price said US policy remained “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” adding, “we continue to be open to diplomacy with the DPRK, we continue to reach out to the DPRK, we are committed to pursuing a diplomatic approach. We are willing to meet without preconditions and call on the DPRK to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.”

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Speaking on Friday at the same nuclear policy conference Jenkins addressed, Alexandra Bell, another senior State Department arms control official, also stressed that there had been no change in US policy.

When asked if it was time to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, she replied: “Putting words aside, we are committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We do not accept North Korea with that status. But we are interested in having a conversation with the North Koreans.”

Daniel Russel, then the top US diplomat for East Asia under President Barack Obama and now with the Asia Society, said Jenkins had “fallen right into Kim Jong Un’s trap” with her remarks.

“To suggest that North Korea simply agrees to have a conversation with the US about arms control and risk reduction is a terrible mistake, because it moves the issue from North Korea’s right to possess nuclear weapons to the issue of how many should he have and how are they used,” he said.

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“Kim would have nothing better than to push his risk reduction agenda — withdrawing US troops from Korea.”

Other experts echoed Jenkins’ comments.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the US-based Arms Control Association, said she was not making a statement recognizing North Korea as a nuclear weapons state under the International Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“She was admitting, as other officials in other administrations have, that North Korea has nuclear weapons, but in violation of its commitments under the NPT not to pursue nuclear weapons,” he told Reuters.

Kimball and Toby Dalton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which hosted the nuclear conference, said they do not see formal recognition as a nuclear-armed state as a prerequisite for arms control talks. Dalton said Jenkins appeared to essentially be restating the US position that it was willing to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions.

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