N. Korea frustrated over what steps to take next

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Aug 28, 2018 - 18:05
  • Updated : Aug 29, 2018 - 14:17

North Korea’s silence on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s canceled trip to Pyongyang is a sign of its deepening frustration over what steps to take next, with denuclearization talks likely to drag on, experts say.

Trump canceled Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, citing insufficient progress on North Korea’s denuclearization and laying some blame on China, North Korea’s major ally which is also engaged in an intensifying trade war with the US.

Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)

A report by the Washington Post on Monday suggested a “belligerent” letter from Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, prompted Trump’s decision on Pompeo’s trip.

While the content of the letter remains unknown, North Korea might have signaled it would not make any new concessions and reiterated its wish to see the US take reciprocal actions in return for the North’s goodwill gestures, according to analysts.

North Korea, which immediately reacted to Trump’s previous cancellation of the US-North Korea summit in May, has yet to respond publicly to the latest Trump turn-about.

Through its state-controlled Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the communist state on Sunday accused Washington of planning an invasion of Pyongyang, citing a US military drill around the Korean Peninsula. It slammed the US for “double-dealing” and “hatching a criminal plot” against the country, but did not mention Pompeo’s canceled visit.

Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University, said that North Korea might be perplexed and revisiting its whole strategy.

“Through the cancellation of Pompeo’s trip, the US made it clear that it is not satisfied with progress on North Korea’s denuclearization, so North Korea may be revisiting its diplomatic strategy fundamentally,” Park said.

The US has demanded North Korea take more concrete steps to denuclearize – such as providing an inventory of its nuclear weapons programs -- to move their talks forward.

“It does not have much time left as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un feels pressure to show a diplomatic, economic achievement this year, marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist state,” he said.

“In the worst-case scenario, the US will not advance talks with North Korea until its trade war with China abates. It means, for North Korea, that sanctions relief is unlikely this year.”

The US and China have been engaged in a trade dispute for months, with each side slapping tit-for-tat tariffs on imports from the other country. Some experts say that the US may be using North Korea to step up pressure on China.

“The absence of an immediate reaction from North Korea means that the North is seeking to make sense of Trump’s intention and see how the situation develops,” said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

“But it is likely that North Korea is aware that Trump is targeting China, not North Korea. So the North is trying to keep a low-profile not to upset the US as it does not want a prolonged deadlock in denuclearization talks,” he said.

Despite the cancellation of Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang, the US kept alive the momentum for dialogue with North Korea.

Pompeo spoke with his counterparts in South Korea and Japan last week to discuss “next steps” on engagement with North Korea, as his trip to Pyongyang was scrapped, according to a press release from the State Department.

Pompeo and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha reaffirmed the US and South Korea remain committed to “the final, fully verified denuclearization” of North Korea, according to the statement. The two also pledged to maintain close coordination and agreed that pressure must continue until North Korea denuclearizes, it added.

Pompeo exchanged a similar view with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono.

But the denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US are likely to be protracted while the US seeks to win the trade dispute.

US President Donald Trump said Monday that now was “not the right time to talk” to China about the two countries’ trade war.

“They want to talk,” Trump said, speaking of Chinese officials, in the Oval Office while announcing a new trade deal with Mexico. “It’s just not the right time to talk right now, to be honest with China.”

South Korea’s national security adviser Chung Eui-yong told lawmakers at a parliamentary session Tuesday that he expects negotiations between North Korea and the US to resume in the near future.

“I think it is inevitable to face hurdles to some extent before entering the early stages of negotiations, given the gravity of the issue and pace of developments of the situation,” Chung said.

“As both sides are making clear that they have strong willingness to have dialogue, I expect the good negotiations to resume soon,” he added.