[News Focus] N. Korea taking time to strategize plans for nuclear talks with US: experts

By Park Han-na
  • Published : Jul 23, 2019 - 14:57
  • Updated : Jul 23, 2019 - 17:38

North Korea seems to be agonizing over cherry-picking key negotiators and agenda items for its fresh nuclear talks with the US in order to avoid another setback following a no-deal summit in February, according to experts.

US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to form negotiation teams “in two to three weeks” and create a framework for denuclearization negotiations after a surprise meeting at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas on June 30.

In this June 30, 2019, file photo, US President Donald Trump, left, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the North Korean side of the border at the village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone. North Korea says it is rethinking whether to abide by its moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and other steps aimed at improving ties with the US. (AP-Yonhap)

Although working-level talks were supposed to take place this month, there has been no announcement on the date or venue yet.

Clearing mounting uncertainty was Trump’s remark that North Korea recently sent a “very positive” correspondence.

“There was a little correspondence recently, very positive correspondence with North Korea. Again, there’s no nuclear testing, there’s no missile testing, there’s no nothing. I think we will, yeah, at a certain point, when they’re ready we’ll be meeting,” he said Monday.

Analysts said the delay in convening the working-level talks is largely due to the capability gap between the two countries, as North Korea needs more time to form a new negotiation team.

“They have a different timetable. The working-level dialogue was hastily scheduled following the Panmunjom meeting, which took place at Trump’s request when North Korea was not fully prepared,” said Kim Jin-a, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

As the absence of a nuclear expert in North Korea’s negotiation team was partly blamed for the breakdown of Trump and Kim’s second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the end of February, Pyongyang will exercise prudence in appointing officials who can achieve a substantive outcome this time.

“There are some indications that North Korea is trying to focus on reorganizing the team by reducing other activities, such as participation in inter-Korean anniversary events,” Kim said.

The first anniversary of the historic summit between the North Korean leader and South Korean President Moon Jae-in was on April 27.

While the composition of the US team remains unchanged, with US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun taking the lead, North Korea has opted for a reshuffle, placing its Foreign Ministry in charge instead of the United Front Department, an organ in charge of inter-Korean relations, which led the Hanoi summit.

Pyongyang’s First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui appears likely to helm the overall working-level negotiations but Biegun’s counterpart has not been confirmed, with news reports speculating that former Ambassador to Vietnam Kim Myong-gil will take the position.

A wide range of topics that Trump and Kim might have discussed during their 53-minute meeting in Panmunjom could take the North Korean team considerable time to process, according to Inje University professor Jin Hee-kwan.

Pyongyang and Washington have been demanding each side come up with a new approach to move their denuclearization talks forward.

“I hope when they show up, they will take a position that’s different,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News on Monday.

In a separate interview, Pompeo suggested that the US would provide a set of security arrangements to the North as a reciprocal measure if the regime disbanded its nuclear program.

What Washington wants to see from Pyongyang is a comprehensive picture of what the final state of denuclearization would look like. So far, the two sides have discussed partial relinquishment of nuclear weapons but the US wants North Korea to surrender all of its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Regarding North Korea’s recent warning that an upcoming US-South Korea military exercises could thwart plans for working-level dialogue, experts shrugged off the significance of the statement.

On July 16, a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry told state media that Trump reaffirmed halting such exercises during his meeting with Kim last month, and the US decision to forge ahead with them was “clearly a breach” of the two leaders’ agreement at a summit in Singapore last year.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry said Monday the name and timing of the late-summer military exercise, 19-2 Dong Maeng, would be confirmed after consulting the US. The ministry is reportedly considering dropping Dong Maeng, which means “alliance” in Korean, from the name.

“The North Korean regime seems to have raised the issue for (impressing) its own people rather than targeting others (the US and South Korea), as it has been routinely criticizing joint military drills whenever they are set to be carried out,” Jin said.

Separately from the working-level talks, Washington and Pyongyang could hold a high-level meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is taking place in Bangkok, Thailand, from Aug. 1-3, as Pompeo and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho are expected to attend the event.

By Park Han-na (