Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

North Korea hints talks with U.S. could be halted and missile, nuclear tests restarted if military exercises go ahead

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea hinted Tuesday that long-stalled working-level denuclearization talks with the United States due to be restarted soon could be halted and nuclear and missile tests restarted if the U.S. goes ahead with planned joint military exercises with South Korea.

In a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry said that if the 19-2 Dong Maeng exercise slated for next month is held, “it will affect DPRK-U.S. working-level talks.”

“We will formulate our decision on the opening of the DPRK-U.S. working-level talks, while keeping watch over the U.S. move hereafter,” the spokesman added.

DPRK is the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The warning came just after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Washington will be looking to be “more creative” in any talks, which reports had said could begin this week. Those remarks were widely seen as a signal that the U.S. was preparing to show some degree of flexibility in its dealings with the North.

Pyongyang has long denounced the joint exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, a charge the U.S. and its allies have denied.

In a separate statement carried by KCNA earlier in the day, the Foreign Ministry also said that the North is rethinking whether to abide by its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and longer-range missile tests, as well as other steps aimed at improving ties with the United States, linking these to the scheduled military exercises.

Trump vowed to suspend military drills with South Korea during his first and third meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“Our discontinuation of the nuclear and ICBM tests and the U.S. suspension of joint military exercises are, to all its intents and purposes, commitments made to improve bilateral relations. They are not a legal document inscribed on a paper,” it said in an apparent bid to apply pressure to the U.S. ahead of any working-level talks.

The warnings were likely to catch the U.S. off guard, especially after Pompeo said in an interview Monday that he hopes “the North Koreans will come to the table with ideas that they didn’t have the first time,” while also adding that “we hope we can we be a little more creative, too.”

The remarks — a possible signal Washington could be open to an interim or arms-control deal — came amid reports and speculation that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump would be amenable to the idea of a freeze.

Still, Pompeo said in the same interview that the U.S. objective remained the same: the North’s complete denuclearization

“The president’s mission hasn’t changed: to fully and finally denuclearize North Korea in a way that we can verify,” he said. “That’s the mission set for these negotiations.”

Working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang were given a kick-start by Trump’s spur-of-the-moment meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone on June 30, when the two leaders agreed to restart the process.

Pompeo said Monday that Trump’s visit to the DMZ — the first time a sitting U.S. leader set foot on North Korean soil — had “given us another chance to sit down” with them and “have another conversation.”

These talks, if they are held, were likely to focus on laying the foundation for the two sides to reach a “small deal” that would be centered on arms control — not the North’s complete disarmament, Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul who recently met with officials in Washington about the talks, wrote in an opinion article on the NK News website.

“This agreement will see a partial freeze/dismantlement of some North Korean nuclear facilities in exchange for a multitude of economic and political concessions, with partial relief of the U.N.-introduced ‘sectoral sanctions’ being the most important of all,” Lankov wrote.

“Most likely, it will be presented to the public as merely the ‘first step on the long road towards full denuclearization,’ but this face-saving rhetoric should not be taken too seriously: This deal will be about arms’ control, not about disarmament,” he added.

Both countries’ leaders have good reason to accept a small deal.

Trump could point to such an agreement as a major foreign policy achievement as he gears up for a contentious 2020 re-election bid, while Kim could bolster his position with hard-liners and discontented elites to show them that he is not going to unilaterally give up the country’s nukes, a “treasured sword” that some see as the only thing preventing the regime’s toppling.

U.S. talks with the North over its nuclear weapons program had been on ice since the last Kim-Trump summit, in February in Hanoi, collapsed amid major differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by Washington.

The State Department has said that the working-level talks were likely to happen “sometime in July,” and South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Sunday that the U.S. has proposed that the two sides meet this week. The U.S. made that proposal through a diplomatic channel and is awaiting a response, the report quoted unidentified diplomatic sources as saying.

The United States is reportedly considering offering a 12- to 18-month suspension of certain sanctions on the North in exchange for the dismantlement of its main Yongbyon nuclear facility and a freeze of the entire nuclear program. Observers have said any such move could see the suspension renewed if progress is made — or snap back if the North cheats in any way.

However, it’s unclear how Pyongyang would react to such an offer, though Lankov warned that “if the U.S. side insists on the reversibility of sanctions, the North Korean side is likely to respond with an offer of equally reversible concessions.”

If a smaller-scale deal would result only in the mothballing of some North Korean nuclear facilities in exchange for a suspension of some U.N.-led sanctions for a limited period of time, Lankov wrote, “one wonders whether such a limited and doomed deal makes much sense.”