North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has agreed to “cooperate closely” with the U.S. — even possibly accepting “stronger” denuclearization measures — a top South Korean official said Thursday, amid an apparent rift over progress in U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, who led a special delegation to the North Korean capital a day earlier to meet Kim, told a televised news conference that the two sides had also set the date for Moon’s visit to Pyongyang for Sept. 18 to 20. Ahead of that trip, Chung said, the North and South would open a joint liaison office at the Kaeseong industrial complex north of the border.
At the summit — their third — the two leaders are scheduled to discuss measures on denuclearization, establishing peace on the peninsula, and detailed steps to help ease military tensions, Chung added. Such a summit would make Moon the first South Korean leader to visit Pyongyang in 11 years.
“Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and expressed his willingness to closely cooperate with not only South Korea but also the United States to that end,” Chung said, adding that Kim had asked Seoul to deliver a message to the U.S. He did not reveal details of that message’s contents.
Kim also told Chung that he was concerned that the international community did not fully “understand his intentions” to denuclearize, and urged them to recognize the “goodwill” behind early moves that he said demonstrated his commitment.
He also “expressed strong willingness that he can take even stronger measures for North Korea’s denuclearization, if there is reciprocation to the North’s earlier measures,” Chung said.
Chung was to speak over the phone later Thursday with U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on the outcome of his trip to North Korea. During their call, Chung also was to deliver the message from Kim to the U.S., the presidential Blue House added.
In late April, the North announced that it would suspend nuclear tests and some missile launches while also scrapping its Punggye-ri nuclear test site — which it later destroyed in May — as it shifted its focus to pursuing economic growth. Those moves were widely seen as symbolic gestures ahead of Kim’s landmark June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Analysis of satellite images in July showed the North had also begun dismantling a key facility for its missile engines and rocket launches, which Trump said Kim had promised at the summit. But progress in completing that has apparently been halted.
The U.S.-North Korea talks hit a snag last month, prompting Trump to cancel a planned trip to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just hours before he was due to leave. Media reports cited a belligerent secret letter from Kim Yong Chol, the North’s No. 2 official, that put the possibility of a successful visit in doubt.
The nuclear talks may be at an impasse over the two parties’ understanding of what was agreed to at the June summit. Kim is said to be seeking a declaration to end the Korean War, a step ahead of a formal peace treaty. Fighting in the 1950-53 war was halted by an armistice, which has governed the conflict ever since.
Last week, the news website Vox reported that Trump told Kim at the Singapore summit that he would sign such a declaration soon after their meeting, according to multiple sources familiar with the negotiations.
Since then, however, the White House has repeatedly asked Pyongyang to dismantle most of its nuclear arsenal first before signing such a document — a move that has likely angered the North Koreans, the report said.
Chung said Thursday that Kim had attempted to assure him that a declaration to formally end the war would not weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance and was unrelated the issue of U.S. troops in South Korea. The United States has some 28,500 troops stationed in the country.
The national security chief said that he and Kim had agreed that an end-of-war declaration would help build trust between the countries as they move forward in the process for denuclearization and stabilizing the peninsula.
Fighting in the Korean War halted with an armistice and left the Korean Peninsula technically in a state of war.
Although an end-of-war declaration would not be a legally binding peace treaty, observers say it could create momentum that would make it easier for Pyongyang to push for such a treaty, as well as formal diplomatic recognition and security concessions.
Despite the faltering U.S.-North Korea talks, Kim appeared to appeal directly to Trump, with Chung saying that the North Korean leader told him that his “trust in Trump remains unchanged” despite the ongoing difficulties.
Chung said that Kim had emphasized he has not once talked negatively about Trump, and that he wished to put an end to the seven decades of hostile relations between Washington and Pyongyang before the end of Trump’s first term.
For his part, Trump has also maintained that his relationship with Kim “is a very good and warm one,” and that he is open to another meeting with the leader.
This had prompted speculation of a possible trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this month involving Moon, Trump and Kim. Seoul, however, threw cold water on that idea, saying Thursday that such a summit was unlikely.
Earlier Thursday, North Korean media said that Kim had called for further efforts to “realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during the meeting with the South Korean delegation. The official Korean Central News Agency dispatch provided no details of how that should be achieved and made no mention of stalled discussions with the U.S. or of Trump.
The report said it was Kim’s “will to completely remove the danger of armed conflict and horror of war from the Korean peninsula and turn it into the cradle of peace without nuclear weapons and free from nuclear threat.”
It said: “The North and the South should further their efforts to realize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
At his upcoming summit, Moon will now face the unenviable task of bringing the U.S. and North Korea back to the negotiating table.
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