US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

Will they or won’t they: Uncertainty over US-North Korea talks

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Coming at the heels of increasingly harsh rhetoric from Pyongyang, another round of talks before the US elections seems unlikely.

The US government has been making hopeful noises about another summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jung Un before the US elections in November. Earlier this month President Trump said the North Koreans wanted to meet and he would do that if it was going to be helpful to move along the hitherto stalled denuclearisation talks. Former national security adviser, John Bolton, indicated a possible “October surprise” and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that there were more discussions happening than publicly noticed. He expressed hope of a senior-level meeting before long.

This was all curious in the face of unambiguous statements from the North Koreans that they weren’t interested in sitting down with the US, citing its “hostile policy” towards the DPRK in the past summits. Talks have not taken off since February 2019 when negotiations collapsed over sanctions relief. The two leaders met four months later for the final time in the demilitarised zone on the Korean border and agreed to restart talks. But this was abandoned again after the failure to get working-level talks going in October.

Since then North Korean has been increasingly aggressive. They promised the US a “Christmas gift” unless they proposed a better deal before the end of 2019. In March, they tested short-range missiles in March, not heeding US and Chinese appeals to return to the negotiating table. And in a strongly-worded statement in June it said that all efforts to “eliminate threats” from the US through dialogue and international law and failed and it was now prepared to respond to nuclear threats in the same vein.

In recent weeks, it has been openly frustrated with its economic situation. The pandemic has closed borders with China, its largest trading partner, and South Korea has steadfastly refused to defy US-led sanctions. North Korea reacted by blowing up inter-Korean liaison office in its territory and threatened to tear up a bilateral military treaty.

Understandably, they are in no mood to resume negotiations despite the fervent hope of their estranged neighbour. That their patience with the US has scrapped the bottom is apparent from the statements by high-level officials indicating it won’t find talks with the US useful unless it changed its stance. North Korean First Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said that the Trump administration was using the dialogue as a political tool to prop up his numbers before the November polls. Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un and the second most powerful person in the country, also said that a meeting was unlikely. But intriguingly she also added that “a surprise thing may still happen”.

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