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US, North Korean diplomats meet in DMZ amid reports of continued nuclear activity

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean Minister of Defence Song Young-moo visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea during a visit to the Joint Security Area in South Korea, Oct. 27, 2017. (DoD photo by US Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

U.S. and North Korean diplomats have held talks in the Demilitarized Zone on implementing summit agreements, officials said Monday, following reports suggesting the communist state has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons.

Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, led a delegation to the tense border area on Sunday in what appeared to be the highest-level meeting since the June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The talks were believed to have been focused on an agenda for upcoming negotiations by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is reportedly planning to travel to Pyongyang soon.

Critics have raised concern over the lack of specific measures or timelines in the declaration signed by Trump and Kim during the Singapore summit even as the U.S. and South Korean militaries agreed to suspend joint military exercises that are hated by the communist state.

U.S. officials “met with North Korean counterparts in Panmunjom to discuss next steps on the implementation” of the declaration, a U.S. Embassy official said.

“Our goal remains the final, fully-verified denuclearization of the DPRK, as agreed to by Chairman Kim in Singapore,” the official said in an emailed statement. The wording dropped the usual reference to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.”

South Korean media reported that the North Korean delegation to the hour-long talks was led by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui.

Recent diplomatic gains have been marred by U.S. intelligence and satellite images suggesting that the North is moving ahead with its nuclear weapons programs despite Kim’s summit promise to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the divided peninsula.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that new satellite images show the North is completing a major expansion of a plant that makes solid-fuel ballistic missiles and re-entry vehicles for warheads that could potentially be used to strike the United States.

It cited images analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., as showing that the North was finishing construction on the exterior of the Hamhung plant around the same time as the June 12 summit in Singapore.

U.S. intelligence officials also have obtained evidence that the North is considering ways to conceal the number of weapons it has and secret production facilities, according to the Washington Post.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, called the report very troubling.

“North Korea has a long history of cheating on agreements that it’s made with previous administrations,” she said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.” “There’s no doubt that, in order to achieve that goal, we need verifiable, unimpeded, reliable inspections. And without those inspections, we can have no guarantee that North Korea is not cheating again.”

Other commercial satellite images reported last week by the monitoring website 38 North show that Pyongyang is rapidly upgrading its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon.

The U.S. administration insists it has a plan and has defended the diplomatic process, which has tamped down tensions after more than a year of missile and nuclear tests and saber rattling that raised fears of a new war.

The president — who tweeted after the summit that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” — said in an interview broadcast Sunday that he believes Kim Jong Un is sincere, although he acknowledged a deal may not work out.

“I made a deal with him, I shook hands with him, I really believe he means it,” Trump told Fox News. “Now is it possible? Have I been in deals, have been in things where, people didn’t work out? It’s possible.”

National Security Adviser John Bolton, meanwhile, said that the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs could be dismantled within a year — a timeline that stands in contrast with many experts who say it would take several years even under the best of circumstances.

“I’m sure that the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, will be discussing this with the North Koreans in the near future,” Bolton said Sunday on the CBS news program “Face the Nation.” “If they have the strategic decision already made to do that and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly.”

Trump and Kim signed a four-point declaration after the summit, which included the denuclearization agreement, a commitment to establish new bilateral relations and joint efforts to build “a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

They also agreed to the recovery of remains of thousands of U.S. servicemembers still missing from the 1950-53 Korean War and “the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

But none have been returned nearly three weeks after the summit, although the United Nations Command has moved coffins to the border among other preparations.

Bolton said the plan would include the “full disclosure” of North Korea’s chemical, biological and nuclear programs along with ballistic missile sites.

He declined to comment on the latest reports about the North’s nuclear efforts but said the United States was aware of the regime’s pattern of reneging on promises during past negotiations.

“We know exactly what the risks are — them using negotiations to drag out the length of time they have to continue their nuclear, chemical, biological weapons programs and ballistic missiles,” he said.


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