Asia Pacific

North Korea says U.S. is seeking December nuclear talks, warns of 'trick' to buy time

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea’s top nuclear envoy said Thursday that the U.S. is seeking a return to denuclearization talks in December, but warned that he believed the move could be a “trick to earn time” ahead of a year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for progress in the talks.

Kim Myong Gil said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency that Stephen Biegun, Washington’s special envoy to North Korea, had sent Pyongyang a message through an unnamed third country “hoping that the DPRK and the U.S. would meet again within December for negotiations.”

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

“If the negotiated solution of issues is possible, we are ready to meet with the U.S. at any place and any time,” Kim said.

However, Kim said he was skeptical that such a meeting would be possible, judging that the U.S. side was likely playing for time.

“If the U.S., failing to put forth a basic solution for lifting the anti-DPRK hostile policy harmful to our rights to existence and development, thinks that it can lead us to negotiations with (a) war-end declaration … and with other matters of secondary importance like the establishment of a liaison office, there is no possibility of the settlement of the issues,” he said, urging the U.S. side to present a “solution” to the North “directly.”

It was not clear if presenting a solution “directly” meant another summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Asked to confirm if the U.S. was, indeed, seeking a return to talks next month, a U.S. State Department spokesperson did not answer the question.

“President Trump remains committed to making progress toward the Singapore commitments of transformed relations, building lasting peace, and complete denuclearization,” the spokesperson told The Japan Times, referring to the commitments made at the first summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in June 2018.

Despite this, Kim Myong Gil said he remains doubtful that the Trump administration would be prepared to make an offer acceptable to Pyongyang.

“I intuitively feel that the U.S. is not ready to give a satisfactory answer to us and its proposal for dialogue with us is a trick to earn time,” he said.

“Explicitly speaking once again, I am not interested in such a meeting,” he added.

Nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and the North have effectively been deadlocked since working-level talks early last month ended with Kim Myong Gil saying they had broken off “entirely due to the United States’ failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.”

In recent weeks, top North Korean officials have repeatedly criticized the U.S. over its position in the talks and over joint military exercises with South Korea.

In a separate statement released via KCNA later Thursday, senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, a known regime hard-liner, said he believed remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper earlier this week signaled that Washington would “drop out” or “completely stop” planned joint military drills with South Korea set for next month.

Esper said Wednesday ahead of his arrival in Seoul for annual defense talks that the U.S. “will adjust our exercise posture either more or less depending on what diplomacy may require.”

Kim Yong Chol said he hoped the comments “reflected the intention” of Trump, calling them “part of positive efforts” on the U.S. side to “preserve” negotiations.

“However, if this ends up with our naive interpretation and the hostile provocation is committed eventually to incite us, we will be compelled to answer with shocking punishment that would be difficult for the U.S. to cope with,” he said.

Late last month, Kim Yong Chol blasted Washington’s “delaying tactics,” warning that a failure to heed Kim Jong Un’s deadline for a “bold decision” by the year’s end and continued “belligerent relations” could lead to an “exchange of fire” at “any moment.”

North Korea has demanded that the U.S. lift what it calls a “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang. Observers say this likely means removing crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions that have left the North Korean economy in tatters and continue to suffocate any hopes for it to grow.

Before the collapse of the last U.S.-North Korea summit in Vietnam in February, the two sides were reportedly planning to ink an end-of-war declaration. Unlike a formal peace treaty, an end-of-war declaration is a legally nonbinding document and would represent a symbolic end to the Korean War, which was halted only with an armistice. The two sides had also discussed the possibility of opening a U.S. interests office in the North.

“This is the most clear statement I can recall publicly dismissive of such steps as formally ending the Korean War and trying to improve U.S.-North Korean political relations,” said James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now with the Carnegie Asia Program in Washington.

“The key point Kim wants to make is that the U.S. must show, in advance of a bilateral meeting, how Washington will end its ‘anti-DPRK hostile policy harmful to our rights to existence and development,’ ” he added.

Asked about sanctions relief, Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, agreed that it is clear Pyongyang “wouldn’t budge on denuclearization just for a liaison office and an end-of-war declaration,” which he called “largely symbolic and diplomatic moves.”

“They want something that substantively strengthens the North Korean regime,” he said, in reference to the easing of sanctions.

“But given the lack of flexibility on both sides, it would be a tough road toward any agreement that both gives the North Koreans wants and makes tangible steps toward denuclearization,” Oba said.

The Trump administration has maintained a tough line on sanctions, one of its last remaining forms of leverage in the talks, saying that they will not be eased until it sees signs of concrete progress toward denuclearization.

Kim and Trump have met three times, first for an official summit in Singapore last year, again for the meeting in Vietnam 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 Pyongyang.

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

Under U.N. Security Council resolutions, Pyongyang is banned from ballistic missile launches.