Kim Jong-un gets letter about virus from Trump

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Kim Jong-un gets letter about virus from Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un received a personal letter from U.S. President Donald Trump soliciting Pyongyang’s cooperation with efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic, said Kim’s younger sister in a statement on Sunday.

Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister and first vice department director of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, called Trump’s decision to dispatch a missive a “highly estimated” move coming “at a time as now when big difficulties and challenges lie in the way of developing the bilateral relations.”

In an English-language statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the younger Kim said Trump praised efforts made by Kim Jong-un “to defend his people from the serious threat” of the epidemic.

The White House so far has not commented on Trump’s message to Kim, though U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said Washington had offered humanitarian help to North Korea and Iran amid the global coronavirus outbreak.

North Korea denies it has any coronavirus infections in the country, though observers have doubted the claim. In January, the regime closed its borders with China, Russia and South Korea to prevent the virus from overwhelming its ill-equipped health care system.

It remains unclear whether Pyongyang accepted the American aid offer, but Trump’s letter and the North Korean statement Sunday suggests the frosty ties between the two countries have eased somewhat owing to the mutual threat of the coronavirus.

“We view such a personal letter of President Trump as a good example showing the special and firm personal relations with Chairman Kim Jong-un,” Kim Yo-jong said, noting Trump had expressed his “willingness to keep in close touch” with the North’s leader in the future.

While relations between the two leaders “are very excellent,” it was too early “to make a hasty conclusion or be optimistic” about whether the leaders’ personal affinities for one another could change the “relations of confrontation” between their countries, she added.

“In my personal opinion, I think that the bilateral relations and dialogue for them would be thinkable only when the equilibrium is kept dynamically and morally and justice ensured between the two countries, not merely by the personal letter between the two leaders,” she said.

Kim Yo-jong’s remarks represent the first time this year a figure at the apex of the regime’s leadership commented on the possibility of resuming bilateral talks with the United States over the North’s denuclearization.

Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been deadlocked after Trump walked out of his second summit with Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019 over the question of sanctions relief. The two leaders agreed to resume dialogue at an impromptu meeting at the inter-Korean border in June, but talks between officials in October failed to narrow differences.

Kim Yo-jong’s message to Trump on Sunday also marked a stark contrast with the harsh language she used in a statement towards Seoul earlier this month, in which she slammed South Korea’s presidential office for taking an “incoherent and imbecile” response to Pyongyang’s recent weapons test.

While expressing gratitude to Trump for “sending his invariable faith” to her brother and noting her hope that bilateral ties with Washington would improve, Kim Yo-jong nonetheless stressed the North would continue “working hard to develop and defend ourselves on our own under the cruel environment which the U.S. is keen to ‘provide’.”

The statement also coincided with an announcement from the regime that it had successfully tested a “tactical guided weapon” on Saturday, when it launched two short-range ballistic missiles under Kim Jong-un’s personal supervision.

Analysts say the divergent attitudes shown with Kim Yo-jong’s response and the regime’s weapons test underscore Kim Jong-un’s intention to pressure Washington towards resuming talks on his own terms.

“The statement demonstrates a clear position from Pyongyang that it will not talk to the United States unless the U.S.’s ‘hostile policy’ – that is, a maintenance of economic sanctions and combined military exercises with South Korea – is not changed,” said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in South Korea.

“But it looks likely that [North Korea] may accept medical equipment and aid from U.S. private organizations, and that this message was meant to save face in order to receive equipment like virus testing kits that it immediately needs.”

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

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