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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korea’s top nuclear envoy batted away a new offer from Washington to meet again in a statement on Thursday, declaring that the North has “no willingness” to negotiate with the Americans if the goal is merely to eke past a looming year-end deadline without a real, substantive end to the current diplomatic stalemate.
The remarks, made by Kim Myong Gil, a North Korean diplomat with years of experience dealing with American officials who is now the DPRK’s lead negotiator in talks the U.S., and published in the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), come amid repeated reminders from the North in recent days telling Washington in no uncertain terms that time is running out to make a deal.
Kim Myong Gil’s remarks pointed directly at Stephen Biegun, the Trump Administration’s special representative in negotiations with the North.
“Biegun, special representative of the U.S. Department of State for North Korea policy, sent us through a third country a message hoping that the DPRK and the U.S. would meet again within December for negotiations,” Kim said, according to KCNA.
“I can not understand why he spreads the so-called idea of DPRK-U.S. relations through the third party, not thinking of candidly making direct contact with me, his dialogue partner, if he has any suggestions or any idea over the DPRK-U.S. dialogue,” he said.
“His behavior only amplifies doubts about the U.S.”
In the statement directed at his American counterpart, Kim Myong Gil said that the North is ready to meet with the U.S. “at any place and any time,” but added that his country would only do so if those negotiations were sincere, and not just a way to squeeze past the deadline.
“If the negotiated solution of issues is possible, we are ready to meet with the U.S. at any place and any time,” Kim said, according to KCNA.
“If the U.S. still seeks a sinister aim of appeasing us in a bid to pass the time limit – the end of this year – with ease as it did during the DPRK-U.S. working-level negotiations in Sweden early in October, we have no willingness to have such negotiations,” he said.
Kim and Biegun met in Stockholm last month for a round of highly anticipated meetings, but walked away from the bargaining table after 8.5 hours without a deal — and broad disagreement over which side deserved the blame.
“Now that we have already informed the U.S. side of our requirements and priority matters, the ball is in the U.S. court,” Kim added.
In his statement, Kim also made explicit reference to numerous ideas and proposals lately floating around Washington as potential bargaining chips — small and intermediate steps that could ultimately lead to a final agreement over sanctions relief and the fate of the North’s nuclear program — and flatly rejected all of them in the absence of bigger, better, and lasting deal.
“If the U.S., failing to put forth a basic solution for lifting the anti-DPRK hostile policy harmful to our rights to existence and development, thinks that it can lead us to negotiations with war-end declaration, which may reduce to a dead document any moment with change of situation, and with other matters of secondary importance like the establishment of a liaison office, there is no possibility of the settlement of the issues,” Kim said, according to KCNA.
According to Kim Myong Gil’s statement, the North still appears to be holding the door open for another diplomatic offer from the U.S. — for now, at least — but is doubtful that such an offer would come.
“If the U.S. side has found a solution to be presented to us, it can just explain it to us directly,” Kim said, according to KCNA.
“But I intuitively feel that the U.S. is not ready to give a satisfactory answer to us and its proposal for dialogue with us is a trick to earn time through the orchestration of DPRK-U.S. meeting,” he said.
“Explicitly speaking once again, I am not interested in such a meeting.”
According to one expert, Kim Myong Gil’s statement is a continuation of the North’s recent, ongoing pressure campaign against the U.S. as the clock ticks down at the end of the year.
“They want to put the burden of action on the United States as much as possible and get as much leverage as possible out of the artificial deadline they have set,” Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department diplomat working on North Korea issues, told NK News.
“North Korea has long been adept at these public pressure tactics,” he said. “Unfortunately, Washington continues to play into North Korea’s hands by not putting forward a creative, credible proposal — and not taking the initiative to shape a public message, needlessly ceding control of the media narrative to Pyongyang.”
According to Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of Korea Risk Group, which owns and operates NK News, Kim’s statement may be leaving out one key detail: in the weeks since the Stockholm talks, Washington apparently has been attempting to make contact with the North again — but no one has responded until now.
“I understand from informed sources that the U.S. has been trying to contact the DPRK side repeatedly of late, but the DPRK side did not reply,” O’Carroll told NK News.
“This may explain why it went via a third country, despite the apparent surprise that this contact was not made directly,” he said.
“I also understand the U.S. is willing to make one last offer to Pyongyang, a final best shot, but that will be it,” he added. “So we really will soon be at the last chance saloon.”
According to Oba, there may yet be room for the U.S. to include a peace declaration and Pyongyang liaison office as sweeteners to help bring North Korea back from the brink.
However, he told NK News, without addressing the North’s deepest concerns — including sanctions relief and a security guarantee — that may never happen.
“I don’t think North Korea is eliminating those two options, so much as saying those two aren’t enough to make a deal that’s good enough for North Korea to sign on to,” Oba said.
“From their perspective, it likely has to include significant sanctions relief as well,” he said.
“I think anyone with a reasonable understanding of North Korea’s interests would not be surprised by that, but this administration has a record of fanciful, misguided ideas about what will work with Pyongyang.”
Jeongmin Kim contributed reporting
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA, modified by NK News