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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Update at 22:05 KST: This article has been updated to include a response from the U.S. State Department, and further comments from an expert.
North Korea and the U.S. have agreed to begin working-level nuclear negotiations this coming Saturday, DPRK first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The DPRK and the U.S. agreed to have preliminary contact on Oct. 4 and hold working-level negotiations on Oct. 5,” Choe said in a statement carried by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The North Korean delegation, she continued, is prepared to engage in upcoming nuclear talks.
“The delegates of the DPRK side are ready to enter into the DPRK-U.S. working-level negotiations,” she said. “It is my expectation that the working-level negotiations would accelerate the positive development of the DPRK-U.S. relations.”
In a statement, U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said she could “confirm that U.S. and DPRK officials plan to meet within the next week.”
Ortagus did not, however, comment on the location of the talks or offer any further details.
The announcement comes less than one day after DPRK Ambassador to the UN Kim Song urged the U.S. in his speech at the 74th UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Monday to come to the negotiating table with a new method of calculation.
“Assuming that the U.S. has had enough time to find out a calculation method that can be shared with us, we expressed our willingness to sit with the U.S. for comprehensive discussion of the issues we have deliberated so far,” Kim said.
The DPRK Ambassador added that Washington will decide “whether the DPRK-U.S. negotiations will become a window of opportunity or an occasion that will hasten the crisis.”
After a months-long postponement, Pyongyang originally on September 9 said in a statement issued under Choe’s name that it was willing to return to negotiations toward the end of that month.
Choe said in that statement that the country intended to sit down with the U.S. for a comprehensive discussion of the issues “at the time and place to be agreed late in September.”
Despite the North’s overture, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last Thursday that the DPRK-U.S. working-level talks would not take place by the end of September, declining to share the specific timeline.
The following day, Kim Kye Gwan, in his capacity as DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) adviser, expressed his frustration over the lack of progress in talks with the U.S.
Kim said he doubted if the DPRK and the U.S. can make a “new breakthrough” in the DPRK-U.S. relations, saying “politicians in Washington are obsessed with ‘nuclear disarmament-first’ assertion.”
The advisor said he would hold out hope in U.S. President Donald Trump’s “wise option and bold decision,” hailing his “political sense and decision.”
Kim’s comments emerged less than one week after North Korea’s new chief negotiator with the U.S. Kim Myong Gil said on September 20 that he was optimistic about planned working-level talks with the U.S., praising Trump’s “wise” calls for more flexibility in diplomacy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump originally agreed to resume working-level negotiations on June 30 during their surprise meeting at Panmunjom.
Though Pompeo previously said the nuclear talks would be held in mid-July, they subsequently failed to materialize.
In response to Tuesday’s statement, the South Korean presidential office said it “welcomes” that the North and the U.S. have decided to proceed with nuclear talks.
“Through the working-level negotiations, we expect that substantive progress will be made at an early stage for the complete denuclearization and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula,” presidential spokesperson Ko Min-jung said in a written statement on Tuesday.
One expert told NK News the working-level talks should be viewed as a necessary stepping stone to another Trump-Kim summit.
“This is good for anyone who wants to see the U.S. and North Korea enter into a peace/denuclearization process,” Andray Abrahamian, a visiting scholar at George Mason University Korea, said.
Abrahamian said “it’s too risky to have another summit without most of the details agreed to by negotiators in advance,” adding he believes another summit is on the cards and that the U.S. “enters this in a pretty good position,” despite domestic political issues currently embroiling the Trump administration.
“North Korean negotiating tactics in the past have included walking away just as it seems a deal has been reached. They may not feel comfortable playing that kind of hardball, because they know (or should know) that Trump is both vulnerable at home and their only real shot at a deal that will remove some of the most onerous sanctions,” he added.
Another expert said that while he welcomed news of the planned talks, “the real challenges lie ahead.”
“Both sides will have to demonstrate more flexibility and creativity to get a meaningful deal and a sustainable process,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department diplomat, told NK News.
“Otherwise, we’ll be back to square one again soon enough: keeping this diplomatic process alive not through addressing the underlying issues but through occasional injections of energy from summit diplomacy,” he continued. “Defibrillator diplomacy, as I’ve called it.”
The talks this Saturday are set to take place one day before the 70th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties between China and North Korea on October 6.
Additional reporting by Oliver Hotham
Edited by Colin Zwirko
Featured image: KCNA