Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the Korean demilitarized zone, June 30, 2019

Amid Donald Trump’s photo opportunity with Kim Jong-un, his Administration is backing away from its long-held demand for the “denuclearization” of North Korea, according to US officials.

At the G20 summit in Japan, Trump seized the opportunity — via Twitter, and without consulting advisors — to invite Kim to join him on Sunday in the Korean demilitarized zone. Kim accepted, leading to the first steps by a US President inside North Korea.

But the third encounter between the two men came after Kim had rebuffed the Trump Administration’s line that North Korea give up all of its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The historic June 2018 summit in Singapore yielded only a vague statement on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and February’s meetings in Vietnam ended with a dramatic walkout by Kim.

This spring North Korea refused any discussion with American negotiators, and it resumed missile testing.

So US officials say that, for weeks before Trump’s ad hoc set-up of the handshake in the demilitarized zone, they have been working on the idea of a “nuclear freeze” by North Korea.

Pyongyang would retain all of its nuclear weapons — with estimates ranging from 20 to 60 — and there would be no restrictions on missile capability.

In February, Kim offered to give up the nuclear fuel production site at Yongbyon, in return for the lifting of the strictest US sanctions. Trump, advised by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his National Security Advisor John Bolton, rejected the proposal because North Korea has other production sites besides Yongbyon.

Under the new American proposal, the North Koreans would also agree to halt production at covert facilities such as Kangson, outside Yongbyon.

A “senior US official involved in North Korean policy” said there is no way to know if North Korea will agree. He said that Pyongyang’s negotiators have insisted that only Kim can define the dismantling of Yongbyon and fuel production.

Back to 1994?

Up to last weekend, the Administration’s public line, stated by Pompeo, has been that “rapid denuclearization of North Korea [must] be completed by January 2021″.

In 2017, during a visit to South Korea, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected the nuclear freeze option because it would “leave North Korea with significant capabilities that would represent a true threat, not just to the region, but to American forces, as well”.

US President Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, negotiated a nuclear freeze in 1994. But relations quickly sourced between the George W. Bush Administration and Pyongyang, with North Korea pursuing uranium enrichment and Bush rejecting Clinton’s approach.

North Korea’s first nuclear test followed in 2006, and a deal for a partial freeze the following year soon collapsed.

On Sunday evening, the State Department’s envoy to North Korea, Stephen E. Biegun, tried to hold back reports of the changed US position.

He said they were “pure speculation” and that his team was “not preparing any new proposal currently”: “What is accurate is not new, and what is new is not accurate.”