The Trump administration is mulling a potential deal with North Korea that would accept the country as a nuclear power if it freezes its existing nuclear programs in exchange for the US lifting its "most onerous" sanctions against the country, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The plan would aim to prevent more nuclear weapons from being created in the country, but "it would not, at least in the near future, dismantle any existing weapons, variously estimated at 20 to 60. Nor would it limit the North's missile capability," according to the paper.
The Times, which noted that US officials previously said they would never support such a plan, said officials in the administration hope the idea "might create a foundation for a new round of negotiations" with North Korea and noted that the administration's current goal is still to fully denuclearize the country.
The report comes on the heels of President Donald Trump becoming the first sitting US president to enter North Korea. During his brief trip to the hermit nation, the President shook hands with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un before the two met for nearly an hour at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
It also comes nearly four months after a summit between the two leaders in Hanoi, Vietnam, abruptly ended with no joint agreement after Kim insisted that all US sanctions be lifted on his country.
As a part of the plan reported by the Times, US negotiators would try to get North Korean negotiators to agree to "expand the definition" of Yongbyon, the country's main nuclear-fuel production site. Under the potentially new definition of Yongbyon, the site would reach "beyond its physical barriers" to include various facilities around the country, including one where America and South Korea believe the country is producing uranium fuel.
A senior US official involved in North Korean policy told the Times "there was no way to know if North Korea would agree to this," and noted that in the past, North Korean negotiators "insisted" that only Kim "could define what dismantling Yongbyon meant," according to the report.
Stephen E. Biegun, the State Department's special representative for North Korea, told the Times on Sunday that the paper's account of the administration's potential deal was "pure speculation" and that his team was "not preparing any new proposal currently," saying, "What is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate."
White House national security adviser John Bolton also disputed the Times report Monday, tweeting that he read the story "with curiosity."
"Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to 'settle for a nuclear freeze by NK,'" he wrote. "This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences."
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN's John Berman that "the general idea of accepting the current nuclear arsenal, whatever it is, is a good start point."
"I've come around to the position some months ago that perhaps as at least an initial plateau, in the interest of getting something done, it might be worth considering capping what the North Koreans have now and then maybe on a much longer term basis trying, you know, to get them to reduce their nuclear holdings to zero, which I think is going to be very difficult," Clapper said Monday on CNN's "New Day."
Clapper, who served in the Obama administration, said the plan reported by the Times would "require some very complex negotiations" and that it would need a verification regime, which "would be a hard pill for the North Koreans to swallow."