North Korea continues showdown with the US, seeks “new path”

Kim and Trump
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in Panmunjom on June 30, 2019. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Although US-South Korean military drills have ended, it appears unlikely that US-North Korean talks will resume anytime soon. The US seems to be waiting for a response from North Korea, implying that the regime has not provided any further information in regards to the resumption of dialogue. 

US-North Korean working-level talks were proposed to begin two to three weeks after the three-way summit held in Panmunjom on June 30, but have yet to materialize. North Korea heavily criticized the recent US-South Korea military drills, but even after the exercises ended, the regime appeared lukewarm toward the idea of continued talks citing the arrival of F-35A stealth fighters in South Korea and other presumed military threats. More recently, North Korea has highlighted statements made by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while dismissing the resumption of dialogue. North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said on August 31 that:

“Pompeo has gone so far in his language and it made the opening of the expected DPRK-U.S. working-level negotiations more difficult…Our expectations of dialogue with the U.S. are gradually disappearing and we are being pushed to re-examine all the measures we have taken so far.” 

Minister Choe was responding to Pompeo’s recent comment that “North Korea’s rogue behavior could not be ignored.” However, North Korea has been using numerous excuses – ranging from US-South Korean military drills, F-35As arriving in South Korea, and then statements made by the US Secretary of State – to express its aversion to resuming talks. The US previously proposed that the two countries meet to discuss their issues, but North Korea has refrained from responding and may have no real intention of continuing dialogue with the US in the current climate. 

US and North Korea engaged in a staring contest

Analysts have suggested that the US and North Korea are in the middle of a “staring contest,” with North Korea seeking to improve its negotiating position by expressing lukewarm sentiments toward restarting negotiations, hoping to influence the US into changing its fundamental position. Even if the two countries were to hold talks at this point, the failures of previous summits are likely to be repeated. North Korea may believe that the best strategy at this point is to avoid restarting talks until the US changes its position. 

There is no guarantee that this “staring contest” will indeed lead to negotiations between the two countries. The US argues that North Korea must show a genuine intent to denuclearize, including the dismantling of its other nuclear facilities in addition to the Yongbyon site. North Korea, for its part, shows no signs of moving away from its long-held position of avoiding any mention of dismantling nuclear sites outside Yongbyon. Neither country has stepped back from their positions since the Hanoi summit, and the regime appears uninterested in conducting more negotiations without a shift in US policy. 

North Korea in no hurry to resume talks

During his keynote address at the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) held in April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that the time limit for negotiations with the US was at the end of this year. With only four months left, North Korea appears willing to let the clock run out. Choe’s statement that “Our expectations of dialogue with the U.S. are gradually disappearing” may be more than just an empty warning. 

Kim has already hinted in his 2019 New Year’s Addressthat the country is looking for a “new path.” Given that the Trump administration will have difficulty turning to hardline measures against North Korea as the presidential campaign heats up next year, the regime may resort to launching ICBMs to place pressure on the Trump administration or conduct other tests as part of a broader military strategy. 

It would help for the two countries to meet at least once during the next four months, whether through a working-level meeting or something at a higher level. However, there’s little room for optimism that suggests such a meeting could resolve the sharp divide between the two countries. The South Korean government, for its part, will have to prepare for a potential restart of US-North Korean negotiations, while also establishing plans to deal with a complete impasse.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.