U.S. irked over push for inter-Korean ties

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U.S. irked over push for inter-Korean ties

U.S. officials are refusing to hold a South Korea-U.S. foreign ministers’ meeting due to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent push for economic re-engagement with North Korea, multiple sources in Washington and Seoul told the JoongAng Ilbo Monday.

One diplomatic source in Seoul said that some U.S. politicians were mocking Moon’s soft approach toward Pyongyang, saying he was “shooting for the moon.”

South Korea wants to have its Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha meet with her U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by the end of this month to mediate between the United States and North Korea after their second summit broke down, but the U.S. State Department isn’t complying, the Seoul source added.

State Department officials are reportedly telling their Seoul counterparts that if Pompeo does meet Kang now, Pompeo will probably spend the entire meeting complaining about Moon’s proposal to resume economic projects with the North.

Another source in Washington said that U.S. officials mostly think a summit between Trump and Moon won’t be happening any time soon. Seoul would find that disheartening, because Moon told Trump on Feb. 28 after the Trump-Kim summit was cut short without a deal that he hopes to meet Trump in person “in the near future” to continue in-depth negotiations on the North Korea issue.

The Blue House said Trump gave a positive response, suggesting they discuss a possible summit through diplomatic channels.

Diplomatic communications apparently slowed down after Moon announced in a national address on March 1 that Seoul would consult with Washington on ways to resume tourism to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang and reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Those two projects, which are just above the inter-Korean border, were shut down by the past two conservative administrations of South Korea.

When the issue was brought up last week during a press briefing at the U.S. State Department and a reporter asked whether the United States was considering giving exemptions to inter-Korean economic projects, a senior official answered, “No.”

As U.S. officials are mostly united on the stance that now is not the time to engage economically with Pyongyang, other diplomatic sources say there’s a divide between Trump negotiators and Democrats on whether the current sanctions are working to their full effect.

U.S. officials involved in denuclearization talks with North Korea believe that Pyongyang’s foreign currency reserves will run out as early as within this year, a source in Washington with knowledge of South Korea-U.S. relations told the JoongAng Ilbo Sunday.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the positive view was shared by officials in the U.S. State Department who are leading talks with the North, adding that the negotiators believe sanctions are definitely taking a toll on North Korea’s economy.

But in contrast, Democrats believe that the sanctions campaign must remain in place for at least one or two more years for the consequences to sink in, the source continued. Democrats are highly dubious of China’s commitment to sanctioning its neighboring communist partner and don’t think the sanctions are being fully enforced.

It is not known how much North Korea has in its foreign reserves. Kim Byung-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University, who tracks the North Korean economy, believes the North currently has $3 billion to $5 billion in reserves and is losing some $1 billion to $1.5 billion annually due to the sanctions. In the worst case, Kim said Pyongyang could lose the whole amount this year or next, which would lead to surging exchange rates, deplorable economic conditions for the North Korean public and discontent with its leadership.

Against this backdrop, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has stressed that sanctions relief won’t come before North Korea’s denuclearization. In the first week since the second Trump-Kim summit ended in a failure, Bolton, who remained largely low-key before the summit, has given six different television interviews saying Trump was still open for dialogue but that the North would have to come back to the talks after rethinking Trump’s offers.

In regard to recent satellite imagery indicating North Korea could be in the process of building a rocket, Bolton told ABC News on Sunday that he wasn’t aware of any discussions between the United States and North Korea on that specific matter, but that the South could have spoken to the North about it.

“I’m actually tomorrow morning going to be speaking with my South Korean counterpart, and I suspect this will be one of the things we discuss,” said Bolton.

Bolton’s South Korean counterpart is Chung Eui-yong, director of the Blue House National Security Office. The Blue House refused to respond to reporters’ questions on Tuesday about whether the phone call took place, citing diplomatic security.

An official from South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed on the condition of anonymity that Chung did speak on the phone with Bolton, but didn’t elaborate. The official said Chung also visited China last weekend to meet Yang Jiechi, a Chinese politburo member who serves as director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, to discuss ways to prevent Pyongyang from breaking away from the dialogue with Washington.

BY CHUN SU-JIN, KIM HYUN-KI [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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