North takes Hanoi offer off table

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North takes Hanoi offer off table

North Korea on Saturday announced the offer it had presented in Hanoi, Vietnam, last year, was no longer on the table, while it also criticized the South for trying to insinuate itself into direct U.S.-North dialogue.

In a statement from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the North’s Foreign Ministry adviser Kim Kye-gwan delivered the regime’s response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s birthday greetings to its leader Kim Jong-un, mocking South Korea for being overly enthusiastic in relaying the message through Blue House National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, who met Trump last week.

“[The South Korean authorities] seem not to know that there is a special liaison channel between the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S.,” the statement read, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“[South Korea] seems it still has lingering hope for playing the role of ‘mediator’ in the DPRK-U.S. relations.”

Adding it was “somehow presumptuous” for Seoul to “meddle in” the personal relationship between Kim Jong-un and Trump, the statement went on to acknowledge the chemistry between the two leaders “are not bad” and that Kim has “good personal feelings” about Trump.

“But, it is absentminded to think of either making us return to the dialogue with the United States by taking advantage of such relations or creating an atmosphere for it,” Kim Kye-gwan said.

In spite of the personal affinity shared by the leaders, the statement declared the North is no longer willing to engage in the type of negotiations it got into at the second Trump-Kim summit in Vietnam last February, which collapsed before any agreement was reached.

At that meeting, Pyongyang proposed “exchanging a core nuclear facility of the country for the lift of some [United Nations] sanctions in a bid to lessen the sufferings of the peaceable people even a bit,” the statement read, referring to the regime’s offer to dismantle its sprawling nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in return for relief from a handful of key UN sanctions on its economy.

The offer was turned down by Trump, who wanted North Korea to acquiesce to the so-called “Libya model” in which it hands off all of its nuclear weapons and fuel to the United States.

Saying the North had interest in engaging in a “barter” like traders, the statement stressed that any future dialogue between the two sides “may be possible only under the condition of the [United States’] absolute agreement on the issues raised by” North Korea.

This may refer to Pyongyang’s demand that the United States end its “hostile policy” toward North Korea, which includes the imposition of various sanctions throttling the regime’s economy. In a political address before the year’s end last month, Kim Jong-un declared the North would no longer be bound to a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and would unveil a “new strategic weapon” soon.

The Trump administration responded to Pyongyang’s declarations with optimism about a future settlement, but the president’s impeachment troubles and tensions with Iran appear to have pushed the North Korea issue lower on the White House agenda.

Kim Kye-gwan acknowledged such a reality in his statement, saying the regime was aware the United States was “neither ready nor able” to accept its demands, which would compel the North to “go on our way.”

Experts in South Korea interpreted the statement as a follow-up on Kim Jong-un’s speech to a plenary meeting of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party on New Year’s Eve, addressed in particular to Seoul.

“The statement from Kim Kye-gwan appears to be a response to South Korea’s misinterpretation of the results of the North’s plenary meeting,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in South Korea.

“I believe the statement speaks to the notion that the South Korean government has been unable to drop its dream of being a mediator in the process, testified by its reading of the plenary meeting as Kim Jong-un leaving open room for future discussions with the United States or not yet embarking on the new path he had warned.”

Though it was the first official statement from the North this year mentioning South Korea’s role in the negotiations, the statement underscored Pyongyang’s unwillingness to include Seoul in its diplomacy with Washington in spite of the Moon Jae-in administration’s repeated efforts to revive dialogue.

It also points to the limitations in Trump’s personal diplomacy approach in dealing with Kim Jong-un, which has kept official discussions between the two sides alive even as their officials repeatedly failed to make progress.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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