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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a statement Wednesday criticizing last week’s one-year extension by the U.S. President of a number of sanctions measures against Pyongyang.
Following positive promotion by both countries’ leaders in recent days of their latest exchange of personal letters, the new MFA statement highlights leader-level diplomacy while casting doubt on the intentions of others in the U.S. government.
It focuses its ire on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically, highlighting but seemingly misinterpreting comments he made over the weekend on sanctions.
The statement, released directly by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), calls the extension of sanctions measures an “unusual move of the United States whereby it gets ever more undisguised in its hostility towards us.”
It said the extension represented “nothing less than the product of the heinous policy hostile to us… by continuously terming us as an enemy.”
The previous executive orders authorizing a number of updated sanctions against North Korea, beginning in 2008, were set to expire on June 26 unless explicitly renewed by President Donald Trump.
He sent a notice to Congress on June 21 saying he “determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency,” citing the “risk of proliferation” and other “provocative, destabilizing, and repressive actions and policies of the Government of North Korea.”
Also mentioned in the MFA statement as places where Washington recently “viciously slandered the DPRK” were the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2019 report – both released last week and both of which were strongly critical of North Korea.
But the primary focus of the statement was on sanctions, which it both condemned and also stressed did not concern North Koreans.
Referring to Pompeo’s recent comments as the main complaint aside from the sanctions extensions, however, it appears the MFA either purposefully or accidentally misrepresented those comments in the statement.
Pompeo “especially made reckless remarks when asked in a press conference about a possibility of the DPRK-U.S. working-level talks,” it said, referring to comments made by the Secretary of State at Joint Base Andrews on Sunday.
According to the MFA, he said “that it is important for everyone to remember that today some 80-plus percent of the North Korean economy is sanctioned, and he let loose a sophistry as if the sanctions are rendering the bilateral talks possible.”
“If the U.S. sanctions are affecting 80-plus percent of our economy, as Pompeo mentioned, the question is whether the U.S. target is to raise it up to 100 percent,” it added.
Pompeo on Sunday, however, when answering a two-part question on Iran sanctions and DPRK working-level talks, misspoke but moments later corrected himself.
“As for the sanctions, so today some 80-plus percent of the North Korean economy is sanctioned. I think it’s important for everyone to remember. I think this is – of the Iranian economy. Yes, of the Iranian economy is sanctioned,” he said.
Just before that, Pompeo spoke positively about North Korea’s promotion on Saturday of the recent Trump letter received by Kim Jong Un, saying the circumstances placed U.S.-DPRK negotiations “in a better place” that could see working-level talks resume soon.
But the MFA statement described Pompeo’s remarks an “outright challenge to the DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement… and a manifestation of the most extreme hostile acts by the United States towards the DPRK.”
It is unclear if the statement purposefully spins Pompeo’s remarks in hopes of getting Trump’s attention or if the Secretary of State’s correction was not caught by the North’s foreign ministry.
Notably, however, the MFA in April explicitly called for Pompeo to be dropped from the U.S. negotiating team on North Korea and for someone “more careful and mature in communicating with us” to be installed instead.
This demand was rejected a day later when Pompeo told reporters he was “still in charge of the team.”
Wednesday’s MFA statement appeared to also once again signal the North’s preference for a third summit with President Trump, saying U.S. political motivations of other negotiators remained an obstacle.
“Even though the supreme leaders [Kim and Trump] devote their all for establishing new DPRK-U.S. relations,” the statement said, improved relations and denuclearization would be difficult as long as some U.S. officials “who have an inveterate antagonism towards the DPRK” remained a part of negotiations.
Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said this “seems to suggest that the North is leaving the door open to talks and is even making the case for another Kim-Trump summit.”
She added that the statement, “while criticizing the U.S., is careful to leave the U.S. president out of it and limit the criticism to hard-line policy-makers” despite Trump being the one to have signed the letter to Congress extending the sanctions.
President Trump from the Oval Office on Tuesday night told reporters when asked if a third summit was mentioned in their latest exchange of letters that “maybe there was, but we, you know at some point we’ll do that.”
But despite criticizing the extension of sanctions and their interpretation of Pompeo’s remarks on sanctions, the MFA said the U.S. “should not be mistaken” and that North Korea “would not thirst for a lifting of sanctions.”
“Our state is not a country that will surrender to the U.S. sanctions, nor are we a country which the U.S. could attack whenever it desires to do so,” it added.
The statement ended with a warning, that Pyongyang “will not hesitate to pull a muscle-flexing trigger in order to defend ourselves.”
Lee, the NK Pro analyst, characterized this line as “a vague and conditional threat,” but added that “it does refer to physical force and would be worth keeping an eye on.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of State