SEOUL: The US and North Korea stepped up tit-for-tat recriminations over the collapse of their Hanoi nuclear talks on Friday, casting doubt on the future of disarmament negotiations between the two countries.
After US President Donald Trump blamed Pyongyang for the failure of this week’s talks, saying a “tepid deal” meant sanctions could not be lifted, a North Korean delegate made a counter-claim in a late-night press conference.
“This is the biggest denuclearization step we can take based on the current level of trust between the two countries,” Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s foreign minister said, referring to Pyongyang’s offer to permanently halt nuclear material production at its Yongbyon complex.
“It’s hard to say there will be something better than what we offered. We may not have such an opportunity again,” he said. “We need such a first step on the road to complete denuclearization.”
The North Korean envoy rejected Trump’s claim that his country’s delegation had asked for all sanctions to be lifted during the summit talks late on Thursday.
“What we asked for was a partial lifting of sanctions, not entirely. In detail, we asked to lift five sanctions imposed within 2016 and 2017, out of a total of 11 sanctions, which would affect ordinary people’s economy and life,” he said.
The UN has tightened its sanctions on North Korea over the regime’s recent nuclear testing and missile launches. The restrictions limit imports and other trade, as well as the ability of North Korean citizens to work abroad.
“I got the sense that Chairman Kim Jong Un could lose his interest in further talks in response to the US,” Choe Son-hui, a vice foreign minister serving as chief nuclear negotiator, said.
However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, disputed the North Korean claims.
“They were pretty expansive with respect to what they are prepared to do at Yongbyon, but there was still not compete clarity with respect to the full scope of what it is they were prepared to offer,” the leading US diplomat told a news conference on Friday during a short stop in the Philippines.
In an interview with Fox News on Thursday night, Trump said that his conversation with his North Korean counterpart “didn’t quite work out.”
“You have to be prepared to walk,” the US leader said. “And this just wouldn’t have been good for our country. And, frankly, he (Kim) could look at it the same way.”
Trump said he remains optimistic about his relationship with the young North Korean dictator. “I have a feeing something will happen down the line. And it will be good,” he added.
However, North Korea experts are pessimistic about future disarmament talks.
“If working level talks resume at an early date, nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang will gain momentum, but if not, the stalemate will be prolonged,” Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, said.
Prof. Lim Eul-chul at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University said unless the North Korean leader made greater concessions on nuclear programs, the US-North Korea talks could collapse completely.
“It seems difficult to move the talks forward without the two sides resolving their differences,” he said.
At Thursday’s news conference in Hanoi, Trump revealed that his negotiating team had raised the issue of hidden uranium enrichment sites in North Korea, apart from Yongbyon. North Korean delegates were surprised by what the US knew, he said.
One of the secret sites is believed to be near Kangson. US media last year quoted a report by the Institute for Science and International Security and analysis by the US Defense Intelligence Agency that showed the Kangson facility was twice as big as Yongbyon.
This site remained vacant until 2001, and the first images of construction were captured in April 2002. North Korea reportedly acquired uranium enrichment technology and equipment from Pakistan between 1988 and 2002.