When North Korea declared the breakdown of last week’s working-level denuclearization talks with the US, the move appeared to be premeditated.
In a statement issued shortly after the talks ended, the North’s top nuclear envoy, Kim Myong-gil, said that the “negotiations have not fulfilled our expectations and finally broke off.” He blamed the US for failing to offer new proposals.
But his remarks were contradicted by the US State Department, which said the comments from the North Korean delegation “do not reflect the content or the spirit of today’s 8 1/2-hour discussion.” Washington further said the US suggested creative ideas and had “good discussions” with the North.
Saturday’s meeting in Stockholm marked the first formal round of negotiations since US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met briefly at the inter-Korean border zone in June, where they agreed to resume working-level talks “within weeks.” The talks had been stalled since their second summit, in Hanoi in February, ended without a deal.
Trump suggested last month that a “new method” might be a way to move the negotiations forward, a remark that was welcomed by Pyongyang. En route to Stockholm, the chief North Korean negotiator struck an optimistic tone, citing a new kind of signal from the US.
During the negotiations, the North rebuffed a US offer to lift certain sanctions in return for a concrete road map toward complete denuclearization. From the North’s perspective, the offer was too limited in scope. Pyongyang reiterated its demands for substantial sanctions relief and security guarantees in exchange for the partial abandonment of its nuclear program.
Actually, Pyongyang may never have expected to gain what it wanted from Washington. Furthermore, it certainly had no intention of proceeding with the negotiations based on the more flexible suggestions from the US, because ultimately they would not have led to the desired outcome: giving the North the status of a nuclear-armed state.
The North appeared to be using the working-level negotiations as a stepping stone to another summit with the US, to let the two leaders work out a deal between themselves. It apparently calculates that Trump will be more inclined to strike a deal with Pyongyang that he can boast of while campaigning for reelection next year.
This calculation was reflected in the statement by the chief North Korean negotiator, calling for the suspension of negotiations and urging the US to deliberate until the end of the year.
He said it would be up to the US to keep the dialogue alive or “forever close the door to dialogue.” He also warned that it would depend entirely on the US whether the North continued its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests or revived them.
Days before the resumption of working-level talks, the North test-fired a new type of ballistic missile from a platform at sea, which appeared to be capable of being launched from a submarine.
Asked if Pyongyang had gone too far this time, Trump made no direct mention of the latest missile test, saying only that both sides wanted to talk.
Trump shrugged off the North’s previous launches of short-range missiles as no big deal, noting they did not violate Kim’s promise to stop nuclear and long-range missile tests.
For the time being, the North is expected to focus on consolidating support from China, its only major ally and economic benefactor. Its leader may seek to hold another meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom he has had five summits in between his talks with Trump. Kim will likely ask Beijing for unofficial sanctions relief, such as less control over border trade.
North Korea may also have wanted to forge a good atmosphere for the Kim-Xi summit by resuming negotiations with the US.
A statement issued by South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday expressed hope for the dialogue between the US and the North to continue. But President Moon Jae-in’s administration in Seoul should now depart from its wishful thinking. Last week’s negotiations reaffirmed that the North will never abandon its nuclear arsenal.
Seoul and Washington should cooperate more closely to maintain the sanctions against the North Korean regime and should draw up military plans to counter the nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang.
Caution should be raised about the possibility of Trump reaching a half-baked deal with the North. But he may find it difficult to make further concessions, at the risk of intensifying criticism against him while impeachment proceedings against him are underway.