By David Brunnström and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON, Oct 28 (Reuters) – The United States said on Friday its policy toward North Korea had not changed after a senior U.S. official responsible for nuclear policy raised eyebrows saying that Washington would be willing to engage in arms control talks with Pyongyang.

Some experts say recognizing North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state, which Pyongyang wants, is a prerequisite for such talks. But Washington has long argued 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 at a nuclear conference in Washington on Thursday how much North Korea should be treated as an arms control issue.

“If they wanted to have a conversation with us…arms control can always be an option if you have two countries willing to sit down at the table and talk,” she replied.

“And not just arms control, but risk reduction – everything leading up to a traditional arms control treaty and all the different aspects of arms control that we can have with them. We made it very clear to the DPRK…that we are ready to talk to them – we have no preconditions,” she said, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name.

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

The United States and its allies fear that North Korea is about to resume nuclear bomb testing for the first time since 2017, which would be very unwelcome for the Biden administration ahead of the midterm elections in the country. beginning of next month. North Korea has rejected US calls to resume talks.

Asked about Jenkins’ comment, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “I want to be very clear about this. There has been no change in American policy.”

Price said the US policy remained “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” while adding, “we continue to be open to diplomacy with the DPRK, we continue to reach out to the DPRK, we are committed to pursue a diplomatic approach”. stand ready to meet without preconditions and call on the DPRK to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.”


Speaking Friday at the same nuclear policy conference Jenkins addressed, Alexandra Bell, another senior State Department arms control official, also stressed that there were no changes. in American politics.

When asked if it was time to accept North Korea as a nuclear state, she replied: “Apart from, we are committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We do not accept North Korea with this status. But we are interested in having a conversation with the North Koreans.”

Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia under then-President Barack Obama and now with the Asia Society, told Reuters that Jenkins had “fallen straight into Kim Jong Un’s trap. ” with his remarks.

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

“Kim would like nothing better than to advance his risk reduction agenda – the withdrawal of US troops from Korea.”

Other experts played down Jenkins’ remarks.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the US-based Arms Control Association, said she was not making a statement recognizing North Korea as a nuclear-weapon state under the international non-proliferation treaty. .

“She recognized, like other officials in other administrations, that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, but in violation of its commitments under the NPT not to seek nuclear weapons,” he said. at Reuters.

Kimball and Toby Dalton, a nuclear expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which hosted the nuclear conference, said they did not see formal recognition as a nuclear-weapon state as a prerequisite in the arms control talks. Dalton said Jenkins seemed to essentially reaffirm the US position that he was willing to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Simon Lewis; Editing by William Mallard)