North’s envoy is puzzled by invitation from Washington

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North’s envoy is puzzled by invitation from Washington

North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator on Thursday said Pyongyang had received an offer from the United States to resume talks next month, begrudgingly adding the country was ready to meet at any place and time if an acceptable solution is presented.

In a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Myong-gil, a roving ambassador of the North’s Foreign Ministry who headed the regime’s delegation in low-level talks with the United States in Stockholm last month, said U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun had relayed a message through a third country hoping for renewed talks in December.

Kim said he could not understand why the offer was sent through a third party, without “thinking of candidly making direct contact with me, his dialogue partner, if [Biegun] has any suggestions or any idea.”

While saying such behavior “amplifies doubts about the U.S.,” Kim also said he was willing to meet Washington’s envoys “at any place and any time” provided a “negotiated solution of issues is possible.”

Referring back to the talks in Sweden, which ended fruitlessly with North Korea declaring Washington had not budged from the position it laid out at the failed second U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, Kim said the North would not enter any negotiations that have a “sinister aim of appeasing us in a bid to pass the time limit — the end of this year.”

That deadline, first mentioned by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a speech in April, has become a fixed part of North Korean public rhetoric on denuclearization negotiations, stressed with increasingly more ominous language in recent statements.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the North’s State Affairs Commission — the highest decision-making body in the country chaired by leader Kim Jong-un himself — put out a rare statement slamming the United States and South Korea for their plans to stage joint aerial drills next month and warning the regime could set course on a “new path” if Washington fails to present a solution to end their stalemate.

As to what conditions may satisfy, Kim Myong-gil said the United States would need to lift its “hostile policy harmful to our rights to existence and development,” suggesting only the easing of economic sanctions would be an acceptable tradeoff for denuclearization measures.

If Washington “thinks that it can lead us to negotiations with [a] 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.

This is possibly the first time North Korea openly declared that an end-of-war declaration to the 1950-53 Korean War would be insufficient to meet its demands, directly acknowledging the non-binding nature of such a step. Pyongyang’s primary demand in all its engagements with the Trump administration has been sanctions relief — a measure that could allow it to realistically pursue Kim Jong-un’s ambitious economic development goals.

“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 a bilateral meeting, Kim Myong-gil added, stressing again he was not interested if that were the case.

The same day, Kim Yong-chol, chairman of the Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (Kappc) and the official formerly in charge of relations with Washington, laid out his own statement warning of a “shocking punishment” for the United States if it does not halt its “hostile” joint military exercises with Seoul.

Regarding U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s comment on Wednesday that he would “adjust” December’s aerial drills to support diplomacy with Pyongyang, Kim Yong-chol said he wanted to believe the remark meant Washington was either suspending the drills for good or withdrawing from holding them jointly with South Korea.

“I would like to believe the U.S. Defense Secretary’s comment reflects [U.S.] President Donald Trump’s intentions, and I judge it to be a positive effort by the United States to revive the momentum for dialogue” between the United States and North Korea, he said.

As he put out this apparently conciliatory message, Kim Yong-chol also took the opportunity to disparage South Korea, saying he did not believe Esper’s remark emerged as a result of a premeditated agreement with Seoul since “however much I look around South Korean politics I do not see any figure capable of making such a wise decision.”

The jab is largely seen as part of the regime’s ongoing effort to sideline the South in denuclearization negotiations with Washington, largely owing to its disenchantment at Seoul for failing to sway the United States toward granting the North sanctions exemptions last year. A strongly-worded KCNA commentary ruling out any South Korean involvement with the Mount Kumgang tourism area on Friday testified to this persistent antagonism.

Yet if Washington carries out the joint drills, Kim added that the regime would be forced to respond with a “shocking punishment” that the United States would find difficult to endure.

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