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US, North Korea face uphill battle in nuke talks

The US and North Korea struggled to make headway in their working-level nuclear talks over the weekend, with Pyongyang blaming Washington for lacking a new proposal.

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Updated: October 7, 2019

Delegations from the US and North Korea held a meeting that lasted over eight hours in Stockholm on Saturday, to revive nuclear diplomacy that has stalled since US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended their second summit without a deal in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February.

Shortly after the meeting, North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator Kim Myong-gil called the fresh talks a “failure,” as the US did not offer a new proposal.

“The US raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” he said.

Refuting the remarks, Washington’s State Department said it “brought creative ideas and had a good discussion” with the North.

“The US delegation previewed a number of new initiatives that would allow us to make progress in each of the four pillars of the Singapore joint statement,” US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement, referring to the agreement signed by Trump and North Korean leader Kim in June last year.

The timing of the next working-level meeting remains uncertain.

While the North’s diplomat said he called for suspending negotiations until the end of the year to take time for deliberation, the US State Department said its delegation has accepted an invitation from Sweden to return to Stockholm to continue discussions in two weeks. The North has not responded to the invitation.

Holding a second meeting in two weeks would be more beneficial for Pyongyang, given the year-end deadline for North Koreans working overseas to return home under sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.

“The mass labor returns will lead to a sharp drop in the North’s hard cash,” said Cheong Seong-chang, vice president of research planning at the Sejong Institute.

During the talks over the weekend, the North Korean delegation reportedly maintained its stance, demanding the US’ “sincere response” in return for measures it has taken so far for denuclearization and trust building with the US, such as the detonation of the punggye-ri nuclear test site and its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

However, the North’s side did not mention detailed denuclearization steps it plans to take, according to a source.

The North Korean official said the denuclearization process would happen “when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development are removed completely without a shadow of doubt,” renewing the North’s calls for security guarantees and sanctions relief.

Such obstacles include economic sanctions slapped against the regime, US-South Korea military drills and high-tech defense equipment that Washington sells to Seoul, according to Kim’s statement.

Given the talks over the weekend were only the first round of working-level meetings in seven months, Pyongyang’s expression of dissatisfaction does not necessarily mean the negotiations are on the brink of collapse, experts said.

“The US and North Korea haven’t reached a consensus but they both acknowledge the need for resolving the issue through dialogue. Declaring a breakdown of negotiations is the North’s typical way of staging a war of nerves,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry put a positive spin on the meeting.

“Although there has not been substantive progress in the working-level talks immediately. … We expect the momentum for dialogue will continue,” the ministry said.

The ministry’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, Lee Do-hoon, is expected to fly to the US on Monday to meet his counterpart, Stephen Biegun, to review the dialogue with the North and discuss countermeasures.


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About the Author: ANN’s Board member Mr Zaffar Abbas, Editor of Pakistan’s Dawn has won the 2019 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protest Journalists.

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