The U.S. envoy for North Korea called on the regime Thursday to provide a full declaration of its nuclear and missile programs as a second bilateral summit appeared only weeks away.
Special Representative Stephen Biegun, who is in charge of day-to-day negotiations with the North, said the declaration will be required to acknowledge complete denuclearization of the regime.
"Before the process of denuclearization can be final, we must also have a complete understanding of the full extent of the North Korean weapons of mass destruction missile programs. We will get that at some point through a comprehensive declaration," Biegun said during a speech at Stanford University.
He said the U.S. has "contingencies" prepared in case negotiations fail, but did not give details.
North Korea has balked at such a demand, claiming an inventory will give the U.S. a list of targets to destroy.
Biegun made clear the U.S. also intends to verify denuclearization.
"We must reach agreement on expert access and monitoring mechanisms of key sites to international standards, and ultimately ensure the removal and destruction of stockpiles of fissile material, weapons, missiles, launchers, and other weapons of mass destruction," the envoy said.
The U.S. and North Korea reached a vague denuclearization deal during last June's first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The agreement committed the North to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees for Pyongyang, without laying out concrete steps.
In late February, the two leaders are set to meet again, reportedly in Vietnam, to try to flesh out the deal. Trump said earlier Thursday that the exact date and venue will be announced early next week.
Many North Korea watchers in the U.S. have warned that the two sides will need to agree on a detailed implementation plan before the second summit or risk giving the regime the legitimacy it seeks as a nuclear weapons state.
Biegun said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was promised by Kim during his October trip to Pyongyang that the regime would dismantle and destroy all of its plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities -- not just those in the main nuclear complex in Yongbyon -- in exchange for "corresponding measures" from the U.S.
"In describing to us their commitment to dismantle and destroy their plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities, the North Koreans have also added the critical words 'and more,'" the envoy said. "This is essential, as there is more -- much more -- to do beyond these facilities to follow through on the Singapore summit commitment to complete denuclearization."
He also said that the U.S. has told the North Koreans that it is prepared to carry out the commitments from Singapore's first summit "simultaneously and in parallel."
The offer is in line with North Korea's wishes as the regime has accused the U.S. of making "gangster-like" demands to first surrender all of its nuclear weapons for only a promise of future economic concessions.
Biegun noted that the U.S. has eased rules for the delivery of humanitarian aid to North Korea, which was previously delayed by United Nations sanctions on the regime.
But he reiterated that the U.S. will keep punishing sanctions on the North until it sees complete denuclearization.
Aside from denuclearization, Trump and Kim also committed at their first summit to pursue "new" relations between the countries, establish peace on the peninsula and work for the return of the remains of American soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Biegun is set to travel to Seoul on Sunday for working-level meetings with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Hyok-chol, ahead of the second summit. The State Department, in announcing the trip, did not reveal when or where the talks will be held, but they are expected to take place in the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom.
The two men were introduced earlier this month when Kim Hyok-chol accompanied a senior North Korean official to Washington to meet with Trump and Pompeo.
That first meeting with Kim, previously Pyongyang's ambassador to Spain, was "productive, focused, results-oriented, and it laid out first steps in a plan for comprehensive working-level negotiations ahead," Biegun said.
"We were satisfied with the outcome of the visit and in the very near future we'll be pursuing concrete plans to advance all of the elements of the Singapore joint statement," he added.
In particular, next week's meeting will discuss the "corresponding measures" the North seeks in return for its plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities.
Biegun went further to assure the North that the U.S. has no interest in regime change. "We're not going to invade North Korea," he said.
The two nations fought each other in the Korean War, leaving a legacy of American troops stationed in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression.
Because the conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty, North Korea has called for an end-of-war declaration with the U.S.
Biegun suggested that Trump is open to the idea.
"I am absolutely convinced, and more importantly, the president of the United States is convinced that it's time to move past 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula," he said. "There is no reason for this conflict to persist any longer."
Harry Kazianis, director of Korea studies at the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington, said a small-scale deal could be enough to propel the denuclearization process.
"The Trump administration should seek a much smaller agreement during this next meeting -- like the closure of Yongbyon for a peace declaration ending the Korean War," he said in an email to Yonhap. "That gives both sides deliverables they both want -- and a clear win giving the process some positive momentum that can build trust and eventually bigger steps towards denuclearization."
While Biegun did not attach a timeline to his demand for a full nuclear inventory, Kazianis said it should not be made at the next summit or in the near term to prevent a breakdown in talks.
Pundits have expressed concern that Trump, who has complained about the cost of keeping 28,500 troops in the ally nation, could agree to pull them out as part of a new deal with the North.
According to Biegun, the topic has not been discussed with the regime.
He also acknowledged that there remains a difference in the two sides' interpretation of "denuclearization."
North Korea has traditionally viewed it as a term meaning not only the elimination of its nuclear arsenal but also the end of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea. (Yonhap)