Asia Pacific

Ex-top North Korean nuclear negotiator warns U.S. not to ignore year-end deadline by 'exploiting' Kim-Trump ties

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The former top North Korean nuclear negotiator Sunday delivered a scathing indictment of the United States’ position in nuclear talks, blasting Washington’s “delaying tactics” and warning of a failure to heed leader Kim Jong Un’s deadline for a “bold decision” by the year’s end.

Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, a known regime hard-liner, said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency that “no substantial progress has been made” in improving ties and that continued “belligerent relations” could lead to an “exchange of fire” at “any moment.”

Kim Yong Chol said the U.S. would be “seriously mistaken” if it ignores the end-of-the-year deadline by using “delaying tactics” and “exploiting the close personal relations” between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.

“The U.S. is now more desperately resorting to the hostile policy towards the DPRK, misjudging the patience and tolerance of the DPRK,” he said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim concluded his statement with a veiled threat of a possible return to 2017, when the North unleashed a flurry of missile launches, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) believed capable of striking most of the U.S., as well as its most powerful nuclear bomb.

“My hope is that the diplomatic adage that there is neither permanent foe nor permanent friend does not change into the one that there is a permanent foe but no permanent friend,” Kim Yong Chol said.

The North issued a similar statement Thursday that was attributed to veteran diplomat Kim Kye Gwan. He criticized U.S. officials for maintaining a “Cold War mentality and ideological prejudice” and urged the United States to act “wisely” through the end of the year.

Kim Yong Chol, a former military intelligence chief once widely seen as Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man, appears to have lost some standing within the regime, but is believed to still wield considerable sway.

Sunday’s statement referred to him as chairman of the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, (KAPPC), an external body under the jurisdiction of the United Front Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee. The department was once headed by Kim Yong Chol, but South Korean intelligence in April that he was apparently forced to step down from the powerful post less than three years after taking it up.

South Korean officials have speculated that the North sidelined him and let Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui take the lead.

This was believed to be because of his role in the collapse of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February without a deal due to major differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the U.S.

Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, said that while Kim Yong Chol’s status remained unclear after being removed from the U.S. negotiating team, it was “very interesting to have him make this statement.”

“Perhaps it’s a way to express hard-line positions without it coming from the negotiators, giving them more leeway,” Town said.

“But the message is still a serious one: That nothing so far is irreversible,” she said.

U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations have effectively been deadlocked since, with working-level talks earlier this month ending with the North’s new top negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, saying they had broken off “entirely due to the United States’ failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.”

Trump and Kim have met three times, twice for official summits this year and last year and once for talks at the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas in late June. Though surrounded by much fanfare, all three meetings have yielded few, if any, tangible results, critics say. Supporters of the president, however, contend Trump’s unorthodox approach — he was the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader — has upended Washington’s outdated way of dealing with nuclear-armed Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un, however, has expressed his displeasure with the direction of the negotiations by conducting a flurry of short-range missile tests, including weapons analysts say are designed to evade missile-defense systems in South Korea and Japan.

Town called the North Korean leader’s deadline “real,” noting that it had been set by the man himself “and has been repeated consistently.”

“What missing the deadline means is unclear,” she said. “Although they have repeated warnings about the resumption of nuke (and) ICBM testing.”

How Trump would react to such a move — he has tacitly OK’d the shorter-range tests — remains a question. However, the U.S. president has alluded to such tests as being a red line for him.

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