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Scoop: Trump's negotiator signals flexibility in North Korea talks

Steve Biegun at a press conference
Biegun. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Steve Biegun, the Trump administration's North Korea negotiator, told reporters in an off the record briefing Sunday that the administration wanted a "complete freeze" of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction program while they are negotiating with the U.S.

Between the lines: Biegun's off the record remarks, made aboard Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's plane during the return trip to Washington from Korea, signaled he's willing to be more flexible with North Korea than the hardliners in the Trump administration. Biegun said the administration isn't ready to lift the sanctions against North Korea if it freezes its weapons program, but that it could give Kim other concessions, such as humanitarian relief and improved diplomatic ties.

  • Biegun insisted, however, that the administration hasn't abandoned its goal of "complete denuclearization."

"What we are looking for is a complete freeze of WMD programs," Biegun told reporters as he was returning to Washington on Sunday from the Korean Peninsula, according to notes from two sources familiar with his remarks. "Stop making things." (Axios was not on the plane and therefore did not enter into any off the record agreement with the administration. The quotes in this story are from notes taken as Biegun spoke.)

  • Biegun went on to say that the administration wanted "a freeze and an idea of an end state, and then within that we have a discussion of a roadmap" towards North Korea giving up their nuclear weapons.
  • Biegun signaled several times in the off the record conversation that he was open to some give and take along the way to that goal, according to one of the sources.
  • A State Department spokesperson declined to comment to Axios.

The backstory: The word “freeze” has become an explosive concept inside the Trump administration over the past 24 hours. The New York Times caused a stir inside the administration with a report that an idea had been taking shape among Trump officials that they might abandon their goal of demanding that North Korea give up its nuclear program.

  • "The concept would amount to a nuclear freeze, one that essentially enshrines the status quo, and tacitly accepts the North as a nuclear power, something administration officials have often said they would never stand for," the Times reported.
  • Biegun told the NYT that no plan along these lines was being developed.
  • And National Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted that neither he nor his staff had heard of such an idea and that the story was a "reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President."

While all senior officials in the Trump administration say they agree on the ultimate goal of "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula, opinions differ within the administration on the best way of reaching that goal.

When President Trump abandoned his last formal talks with Kim Jong-un, in Hanoi in February, he said he wanted a "big deal." Trump said that by "big deal" he meant that North Korea would have to give up all their nuclear weapons before the U.S. would relieve sanctions.

  • Kim disappointed Trump at their Hanoi summit, offering only to dismantle the Yongbyon reactor complex, but no other secret facilities, in exchange for sanctions relief, the president said.
  • Bolton, a long-time hawk on North Korea who was not involved in the recent talks, has firmly opposed making any concessions to North Korea before they give up all of their nuclear weapons.

Behind the scenes: Biegun said in the off the record conversation that "in the abstract we have no interest in sanctions relief before denuclearization," according to one of the sources familiar with the conversation.

  • But Biegun also signaled that the U.S. negotiating team was open to being flexible with the North Koreans in other ways. There are "things we can do in the meantime" to make concessions towards Kim, such as "humanitarian aid, expanded people-to-people talks, presence in each other's capitals."
  • "Let's say they give us 20 nuclear weapons," Biegun speculated, according to source notes. "What can we get? I’m confident that I'd go to the Secretary and he'd go to the President and he would consider that. What we want to do is take pieces off the board."

What's next: As part of Sunday's meeting at the DMZ, Trump said he and Kim have agreed to resume talks over the next few weeks. Biegun will lead negotiations for the U.S.

Editor's note: The attribution for the longer quotations in this story has been clarified to be from sources present at the conversation.