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

The United States said on Friday that its policy toward North Korea had not changed after a top U.S. official in charge of nuclear policy drew some controversy by saying Washington was willing to engage in arms control talks with Pyongyang.

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

Bonnie Jenkins, the State Department’s undersecretary for arms control, was asked when North Korea should be considered an arms control issue Thursday at a nuclear conference in Washington.

“If they talk to us … arms control can always be an option if you have two willing countries that want to sit around the table and talk,” he replied.

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

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Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he added: “If he picks up the phone and says, ‘I want to talk about gun control,’ we’re not going to say no.” I think, if anything, we’d like to explore what that means.”

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

Asked about Jenkins’ comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: There has been no change in US policy.”

Price noted that US policy remains “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while adding that “we remain open to diplomacy with the DPRK, we continue to engage with the DPRK, we are committed to a diplomatic approach show”. We are ready to meet without preconditions and call on the DPRK to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.”

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Speaking at the same nuclear policy conference as Jenkins on Friday, another top State Department arms control official, Alexandra Bell, also stressed there was no change in US policy.

When asked whether it is time to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, he answered: We do not accept North Korea as such. But we are interested in having a conversation with the North Koreans.”

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

“To suggest that North Korea should only agree to talk with the United States about arms control and risk reduction is a terrible mistake because it shifts the issue from North Korea’s right to have nuclear weapons to the question of how many it should have and how are they used,” he said.

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“Kim would like nothing better than to advance his de-risking agenda: the withdrawal of US troops from Korea.”

Other experts dismissed Jenkins’ claims.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the US-based Arms Control Association, said he was not making an announcement to recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state under the International Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“He acknowledged, as did other officials in other administrations, that North Korea does have nuclear weapons but is in violation of its NPT commitments 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 did not see formal recognition of a nuclear-weapon state as a prerequisite for arms control talks. Dalton said Jenkins was essentially reaffirming the US position that it is willing to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions.

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