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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
The Trump administration’s “slow, steady, patient” diplomacy with North Korea will go on unchanged, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Wednesday, even as a months-long diplomatic stalemate with Pyongyang continues with no obvious end in sight.
The official, speaking to reporters in Washington on condition of anonymity, repeated the Trump administration’s optimistic stance of late that its DPRK policy — despite the numerous ongoing disputes dividing the two countries — would ultimately lead to more negotiations, more talks, and, eventually, peace.
“So on North Korea, slow, patient, steady diplomacy,” the official said. “We’re going to stick with this plan. It’s working.”
“We’ll coordinate with allies and partners in the region to continue to make sure that that pressure is steady and insist that UN Security Council resolutions are enforced,” he added. “That will continue to make clear to the North that they need to come out and negotiate and talk.”
Later in the briefing, the official clarified that when he said “it’s working,” he didn’t actually mean things were succeeding just yet.
“Hopefully you didn’t take my comments on North Korea to say that they’re going very well,” he said. “I didn’t say that.”
“I said the plan is proceeding as slow, patient diplomacy, and we will continue to maintain that plan,” he continued. “So there is no value judgment in the status of North Korea negotiations. Make that clear.”
At the heart of the two countries’ dispute is North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — which the U.S. says must be abandoned — and the sweeping U.S. and UN sanctions that have been clamped onto Pyongyang’s economy as punishment.
The DPRK also vehemently opposes the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, especially its joint military drills with the South.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday that Washington and Seoul will modify their upcoming combined exercises, scheduled for the spring, in an attempt to help restart diplomatic talks with the North.
However, Pyongyang has rebuffed multiple attempts by the Trump administration to keep talking in recent weeks — and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un told senior Workers’ Party officials in late December that, essentially, the country won’t consider giving up nuclear weapons unless the U.S. drops its so-called “hostile policy.”
“If the U.S. persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there will never be the denuclearization on the Korean peninsula,” he said, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
A North Korean diplomat in Geneva repeated the line verbatim on Tuesday, according to Reuters.
For his part, the State Department official said on Wednesday that “there’s nothing to be gained by not talking” with North Korea.
“It’s only to their benefit, so we encourage them to talk,” he said.
But even as the Trump administration has been trying to restart talks with the North, the President and his top deputies have at the same time exerted public pressure on the alliance with South Korea.
That dispute is mainly over the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula — an issue known as “burden sharing.”
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper co-wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal insisting that South Korea does not put enough money into the alliance.
President Trump has reportedly asked for a fivefold increase in payments from Seoul, though it is unclear how the administration calculated that specific number.
The unnamed State Department official was asked about the burden sharing issue on Wednesday.
“Sometimes it’s worth just taking a big step back and appreciating all those things that we’ve provided, that we have, and that the U.S. brings to these relationships, and the U.S.-ROK relationship is no different,” he said.
The official also commented on recent reports of leadership changes in Pyongyang — specifically, North Korea’s new foreign minister, first reported by NK News — and insisted that it would not change anything.
“A commitment from the highest level is a commitment, and we would expect them to continue,” the official said. “Whether the faces change or not.”
The official was also asked about a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, taken into effect on December 22, that requires all overseas DPRK workers to return home.
According to the official, China is not doing enough to enforce the worker ban — and that’s why, he said, the U.S. Treasury Department enforced sanctions against companies in Beijing and Pyongyang last week.
“Many – most others have actually taken this to heart and moved them,” the official said. “But we know one particular country has the large majority of North Korean guest workers and has not taken action, hence the steps we had to take in terms of sanctions.”
The official clarified that he was referring to China.
Edited by James Fretwell