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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
A senior North Korean official on Monday said they expected working-level talks with the U.S. to begin soon, while stressing that it will be up to Washington to decide whether dialogue serves as an opportunity to improve relations or deepens tensions between the two.
In a statement a week after the DPRK formally expressed its hopes to resume nuclear negotiations, an official described as director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) Department of U.S. Affairs said talks will likely be held in the “coming few weeks.”
It is “fortunate that the U.S. repeatedly expressed its position to resolve issues through dialogue and negotiations,” they added in a Korean-language pronouncement.
“I hope that the working-level negotiations, which I think can be held in the coming few weeks, will be a good meeting between the DPRK and the U.S.,” he added.
Though the press statement did not mention the official by name, it is likely Kwon Jong Gun, who was named in the position of head of the Department of American Affairs earlier in the year.
In the Monday press statement, the official also said the working-level talks presented both opportunity and risk.
“Depending on what alternative proposal the U.S. brings to negotiations, the DPRK and the U.S. can get closer in the future or, contrary to this, both can develop hostility toward each other,” the director-general said.
“In other words, the DPRK-U.S. dialogue presents two choices: crisis or opportunity.”
“Working-level negotiation serves as the opportunity to set the future path of the DPRK-U.S. dialogue,” they added, stressing the North’s “clear and immutable” stance.
“Only when the threats and obstacles that endanger the security of our system and hamper development are removed clearly and unquestionably can a discussion on denuclearization be held,” the official said — a reiteration of the DPRK’s long-standing demands for security guarantees and partial sanctions relief.
“The U.S. will decide whether the DPRK-U.S. negotiations become a window of opportunity or an occasion to precipitate the crisis.”
BREAKING THE IMPASSE?
Following a months-long delay in planned talks, DPRK first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui last week said North Korea was willing to hold “comprehensive discussions” with the U.S. by the end of September.
Choe also expressed her hopes that the U.S. would present the DPRK with a new set of proposals based on a “calculation method” that the country could accept.
One expert said Pyongyang’s increasing openness to talks with Washington could be, in part, tied to last week’s decision by the U.S. President to fire National Security Advisor John Bolton, a long-time hardliner on the North Korean issue.
Trump on Wednesday cited comments by Bolton last year comparing North Korean denuclearization to that of Libya under the late Muammar Gaddafi as among the reasons for his firing.
Bolton’s comparison between the Libyan model and the North, the President said, “set us back,” describing them as a “disaster.”
The DPRK, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister NK Pro, “seems to have become more hopeful after reading various U.S. media accounts about the alleged Trump-Bolton divide over relaxing sanctions for North Korea.”
Monday’s press statement, Lee said, appear to “confirm that security guarantees will be a foremost agenda item for the North Koreans, judging from the use of the term ‘institutional security.’”
“Kim Jong Un’s unusual emphasis of US-ROK joint military drills as a threat to North Korea’s national security in late July and August seemed to indicate that North Korea was trying to win security guarantees from Washington as part of the denuclearization process.”
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday told senior officials that he expected working-level DPRK-U.S. talks to resume soon.
“Unwavering trust and commitment to peace between the South and North Korean and the U.S. leaders will be a force to advance the peace process on the Korean peninsula,” he said.
The South Korean President also promised to “actively stand by and support North Korea-U.S. dialogue” during his ninth summit with Trump next week, set to take place on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
The U.S. State Department did not respond to requests for comment from NK News on Monday, and has so far been reluctant to confirm that any meetings with the North Korean on the cards.
“We have no meetings to announce as it relates to that,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said last week, while stressing the U.S. welcomed Pyongyang’s new willingness to talk.
But beyond the working-level, there are also growing hints that leader-to-leader diplomacy continues.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper on Monday reported — citing unnamed multiple diplomatic sources — that Kim Jong Un had sent a secret letter to President Donald Trump in the third week of August inviting him to meet in Pyongyang.
Speaking at a parliamentary hearing later in the day, foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha appeared to confirm the report, though later retracted her remarks.
President Trump did, however, last week say he believed another meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was possible this year.
“Certainly [the North Koreans] want to meet,” Trump said. “I think it’s something that will happen and we’ll see… But Kim Jong Un… I think something can happen.”
Additional reporting and editing by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA