Pyongyang refutes Trump’s claim of correspondence from Kim

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Pyongyang refutes Trump’s claim of correspondence from Kim

Pyongyang rejected U.S. President Donald Trump’s claim that he had received a “nice note” from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un less than a day after the revelation and questioned Washington’s motives for the “ungrounded” assertion.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry official in a statement late Sunday denied that Kim had sent a letter to the U.S. president recently, noting that Trump “could have referred to the personal letters that had been exchanged in the past, we are not sure.”

The remarks come after Trump revealed in a press briefing of the coronavirus task force in the White House Saturday that he had “received a nice note” from Kim recently, flaunting his “good relationship” with the North Korean leader.

However, the official overseeing foreign news at the ministry’s Department of Press and Information said in a short English-language statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that “there was no letter addressed recently to the U.S. president” by leader Kim Jong-un.

“We are about to look into the matter to see if the U.S. leadership seeks anything in feeding the ungrounded story into the media,” added the official.

The official further warned that the “relations between the top leaders of the DPRK and the U.S. are not an issue to be taken up just for diversion” nor should it be “misused for meeting selfish purposes.” DPRK is an acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

This unnamed official was described by the KCNA as the “room chief of news for foreign service of Department of Press and Information,” which could be a new post within the North’s Foreign Ministry handling external news. The ministry’s North American affairs department has generally dealt with U.S. matters.

The unusually quick rebuttal from Pyongyang denying the letter exchange was puzzling, and it is unclear if there was a misunderstanding in terms of what constitutes “recent” or if there are other underlying motives on either side.

Kim Yo-jong, the North Korean leader’s powerful younger sister and closest aide, said on March 22 that her brother received a personal letter from Trump. The letter offered cooperation with North Korea in efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, and Kim Yo-jong called it a “good example showing the special and firm personal relations” between the two leaders.

Trump also sent Kim a letter to wish him a happy birthday in January.

Some analysts see Pyongyang’s latest remarks as a stern message to Washington amid a lack of progress in denuclearization negotiations which have been at a standstill for over a year since the collapse of the second summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 28, 2019. The two leaders had an impromptu reunion at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the inter-Korean border in late June and agreed to continue working-level talks soon. However, the working-level talks finally held in Stockholm in early October between the top U.S. and North Korean nuclear envoys did not close gaps on key issues such as the scope of denuclearization or sanctions relief. But Kim and Trump’s epistolary exchanges have been emblematic of continued diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang.

Kim Yo-jong was appointed as an alternate Politburo member during a Political Bureau meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 11, and some diplomatic sources say that she may be the mastermind behind the latest statement as well. But it appears North Korea also does not seem to want to drag out the issue as the statement was not released by a more senior Foreign Ministry official and kept relatively brief. Pyongyang, despite propaganda statements that have targeted Washington and top U.S. officials, has generally avoided any direct insults toward Trump amid the denuclearization talks.

Trump in the Saturday press briefing touted he had “a good relationship” with Kim but also stressed that the United States had the “same sanctions we’ve always had, except more” on North Korea, adding “we haven’t given anything.”

Trump also said, “Look, if I wasn’t elected, you would, right now, be at war with North Korea.” The remarks could have been construed in Pyongyang as Trump trying to use the North Korea card to his advantage in his reelection campaign ahead of the presidential elections in November.

“I think, right now, you’d be at war, essentially - in some form - it would be over, it would be raging - with North Korea, if I weren’t president,” said Trump. “And we’re doing just fine with North Korea. […] We’ll see how it all ends up.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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