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By Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube
HANOI, Vietnam – U.S. The negotiators are no longer demanding that North Korea agree to disclose a full accounting of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs as part of the talks this week between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, according to current and former senior U.S. officials.
The decision to drop, for now, a significant component of a potential nuclear deal suggests a reality that U.S. intelligence assessments have been stressed for months is shaping talks as they progress: North Korea does not intend to completely denuclearize, which is the goal Trump set for his talks with Kim.
A full, verifiable declaration of North Korea's programs is disclosed Issue over which the last round of serious negotiations between Pyongyang and world powers, including the US, fell decades ago.
Negotiations between US and the North Korean officials in advance of the Trump and Kim's second summit, which begins Wednesday night over dinner in Hanoi, have focused heavily on the core component of the Pyongyang program, the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, officials said. Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist who has visited the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center many times to assess the country's capabilities, said the facility's decommissioning elements would be the most significant step North Korea could take towards nuclear denuclearization.
"Yongbyon is the heart of North Korea's nuclear program, "Hecker said, explaining that it would be critical to radically dismantle the reactor and would mean that North Korea would never be able to make plutonium there again.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Trump Administration is hoping to get a significant concession from North Korea to Yongbyon, but it's unclear if the US Can offer something in exchange that Kim would accept. North Korea wants sanctions relief, and U.S. officials have advised the president not to take such a step in this stage of the negotiations. North Korea has offered to freeze activity at Yongbyon in the past rounds of negotiations with the previous U.S. administrations.
Current and former U.S. Officials note that North Korea has other sites with similar capabilities, however, and they are raising concerns that Pyongyang will not negotiate all aspects of its weapons programs, if it is not forced to disclose them.
In recent months researchers have discovered that North Korea has as many as 20 undisclosed ballistic missile sites, according to Beyond Parallel, a sponsored project by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense think tank. One of the sites is Sino-ri Missile Base about 130 miles north of the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, where about 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
North Korea has not launched a missile test since engaging diplomatically with the U.S. Last year, Trump first met with Kim last June, in Singapore, U.S. officials have said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had been leading the negotiations until he called a special envoy to focus on the effort, has grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of reaching a deal with North Korea that would rid itself of its nuclear threat, current and former senior US officials said.
Last August Pompeo named a special envoy to lead the North Korean talks, Stephen Biegun. Some White House and State Department officials have raised concerns over recent days that Biegun might be offering too much from the U.S. to his North Korean counterparts.
Officials point out that the outcome of the summit on Wednesday and Thursday is difficult to predict because Trump could get into the room with Kim and ignore his advisers' recommendations based on preliminary negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials. Trump has styled himself since his presidential campaign as a master negotiator and dealmaker who relies on his instincts over experts and research. He told the Washington Post in an interview last fall that "my gut tells me more often than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."
Putting off a requirement that North Korea will disclose all its weapons programs does not mean the US Has dropped the demand entirely. Some officials say it would be addressed later.
But some current and former U.S. Officials have argued that such a declaration should be made early on the talks given the intelligence assessment that Kim does not intend to denuclearize and that North Korea has an historic site masking.
Officials add that even if North Korea provided a list of locations , it would not make much of a difference, because their demolition would require vigorous verification process, which Kim is unlikely to agree on.
Hecker said allowing insurers in would also be a significant step for the North Koreans. "Letting inspectors look at the testing tunnels" would be a significant step forward, he said.
Carol E. Lee reported from Hanoi, and Courtney Kube from Washington.