North Korea will not dismantle its nuclear weapons program until the United States also agrees to diminish its military capacity in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula, its official news agency said on Thursday, clarifying a position that had remained vague since the leaders of both countries met in June.
At that meeting, President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, committed to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But diverging interpretations of exactly what “complete” and “denuclearization” mean have led to a diplomatic stalemate and a breakdown in talks.
“When we refer to the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat not only from the North and the South but also from all neighboring areas targeting the peninsula,” the official Korean Central News Agency said in a published commentary on Thursday. “The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should be defined as ‘completely eliminating the U.S. nuclear threat to Korea’ before it can eliminate our nuclear deterrent.”
North Korea has for decades maintained that it would not eliminate its weapons program until the United States closed its regional “nuclear umbrella,” a network of nuclear-capable submarines and bombers operating off the coasts of South Korea and Japan.
(The United States removed all its conventional nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s.)
Thursday’s commentary confirmed that the North’s position on denuclearization remains unchanged despite June’s summit meeting in Singapore.
Robert Palladino, a deputy spokesman at the State Department, said on Tuesday that Washington wanted to achieve “the final, fully verified denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as committed to by Chairman Kim in Singapore.”
Mr. Palladino said he would not “split words,” when asked about whether the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” meant only the denuclearization of North Korea.
“Our focus remains denuclearization of North Korea, and that’s where we’re pushing,” he said.
The North’s all-or-nothing position means that the negotiations will be far more complicated than Washington had hoped.
Mr. Trump has said in the past that “point No. 1” in the deal he reached with Mr. Kim in Singapore was “denuclearization.”
In truth, “denuclearization” was the third bullet point in a list of four broadly worded agreements.
The North has since insisted that it would cooperate on denuclearization only when Washington delivered on the first two points: Mr. Trump’s promise to build “new” relations and a “peace regime,” efforts intended to make North Korea feel secure enough to disarm.
American officials demand that North Korea quickly dismantle its nuclear weapons and remove the fissile material that it has accumulated in violation of United Nations resolutions, before expecting economic — or other — rewards.
Many analysts suspected that rather than agreeing to unilaterally disarm, the North would try to drag Washington into bilateral arms reduction talks.
The North Korean commentary published on Thursday said the country remained the first target of American nuclear pre-emptive strikes. It argued that giving up nuclear weapons without first getting security guarantees from Washington was “not denuclearization, but making the country defenseless.”
The commentary said the first test of Washington’s sincerity would be whether it lifted sanctions against the North.
The Trump administration has said it would not lift sanctions until more progress has been made in denuclearizing North Korea. But on Wednesday, Stephen Biegun, the United States envoy to the North, said Washington planned to review its ban on American travel to North Korea to help facilitate humanitarian aid shipments there, a move intended to help break the stalemate.
Mr. Kim said in September he and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea agreed to work toward making the Korean Peninsula “free of nuclear weapons and nuclear threat.” Mr. Moon has since argued that Mr. Kim is willing to negotiate away his nuclear weapons and focus on economic development, if Washington provides “corresponding” incentives.
Mr. Moon also said that Mr. Kim was not demanding the withdrawal of all 28,500 American troops based in the South. Both Washington and Seoul support the American military presence as a stabilizing force in Northeast Asia.
But South Korean officials suggested that the composition of American troops in the South could be adjusted as part of a deal on denuclearizing the North. Following his June meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump announced that the Pentagon would cancel most of the large annual joint military exercises the United States conducts with South Korea, in an effort to expedite a deal.