SEOUL - North Korea has angrily walked away from working-level nuclear talks with the United States, with Pyongyang's top negotiator saying Saturday he was "greatly disappointed" with Washington's inflexible approach.
The quick breakdown of the first substantive nuclear negotiations in months raises the possibility North Korea will intensify its provocations, days after testing a new medium-range ballistic missile designed to be launched from a submarine.
But the North's decision to walk away may amount to little more than a rehash of a long-standing negotiating tactic meant to raise pressure on the U.S., some analysts say, predicting Pyongyang may soon return to the talks.
After a day of negotiations on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden, North Korea's top nuclear envoy, Kim Myong Gil, blamed the failure of the talks on Washington's "old stance and attitude."
“It is entirely because the U.S. has not discarded its old stance and attitude that the negotiation failed this time,” Kim Myong Gil said outside North Korea’s embassy in the Swedish capital.
“The U.S. came to the negotiations empty-handed and this shows after all it is not willing to solve the issue,” he added.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus quickly disputed that characterization, saying Kim’s comments “do not reflect the content or spirit of today’s 8½ hour discussion.”
“The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” said Ortagus, using the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name.
Ortagus said the U.S. accepted a Swedish invitation to continue the talks in two weeks.
“The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula through the course of a single Saturday. These are weighty issues, and they require a strong commitment by both countries. The United States has that commitment,” Ortagus said.
While the U.S. accepted a Swedish invitation to continue the talks in two weeks, Pyongyang late Sunday said it has no plans to continue the talks unless the U.S. ends its "hostile" policies.
The statement, published in the North's Korean Central News Agency and attributed to the North Korean foreign ministry also repeated Pyongyang's end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to change its approach to the talks.
February talks broke down
The previous round of U.S.-North Korea talks broke down in February, after U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly ended a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam.
At that summit, Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for the removal of five United Nations sanctions that hurt North Korea’s economy. Trump instead wanted Kim to agree to give up his entire nuclear program in a so-called “big deal.”
In recent months, Trump had hinted at increased flexibility. Last month, he spoke of the need for a “new method” to the talks — language that closely mirrored Pyongyang’s call for Washington to make more concessions. Trump also fired John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, who had opposed the North Korea talks.
“Having so far hinted at a flexible approach, new method and creative solution, the U.S. has heightened expectations,” said Kim, the top North Korean negotiator, Saturday. “But it came out with nothing, greatly disappointed us, and sapped our appetite for negotiations.”
Negotiations likely to continue
While the breakdown of the talks could lead to additional provocations by North Korea, it isn’t clear the negotiations have completely ended, Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat focused on Korea, said.
“The North Koreans have a long history of being tough negotiators willing to cancel or withdraw as a tactic, and I think it’s far more likely that they carefully conceived this move ahead of time rather than spontaneously combusting at the negotiating table,” Oba said.
“I don’t think this is necessarily the end of working-level diplomacy just yet,” he added.
Since the breakdown of the Hanoi talks, North Korea has looked to increase its negotiating leverage by testing 11 separate rounds of missiles — most or all of which appeared to use ballistic missile technology.
The latest launch, conducted last week, involved a medium-range ballistic missile designed to be fired from a submarine, according to U.S. officials. The technology adds a dangerous and unpredictable new component to North Korea’s arsenal.
Trump has downplayed the North Korean launches, saying they are not long-range and cannot threaten the United States. The launches violate United Nations Security Council resolutions.
“The lack of a U.S. response to Kim’s missile tests over the last few months likely reinforces his views that he’s in the driver’s seat,” said Eric Brewer, a former White House National Security Council official who worked on North Korea issues.
“Kim can keep growing the program with little or no consequence and hold out for a better deal and/or that next summit with Trump,” said Brewer, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Trump hasn’t yet responded to the breakdown of the latest talks, but on Friday said North Korea would “like to do something.” In those comments, Trump also mentioned what he called the “witch hunt” — a likely reference to the fast-expanding impeachment inquiry against him.
Fourth Trump-Kim meeting
In recent weeks, Trump has said he is interested in holding a fourth meeting with Kim. But it’s not clear how that could advance nuclear talks, without substantive, expert-level discussions on North Korea’s nuclear program.
Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official, said Trump’s desire to meet directly with Kim is effectively handcuffing U.S. working-level negotiators.
“Kim has no incentive to make any meaningful concessions to the U.S. under Trump. He has incentive to pocket whatever gains he can get from the U.S. while simultaneously placating Trump and avoiding giving anything that would be irreversible,” Jackson, a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, said.
At their first meeting in Singapore in June 2018, Trump and Kim signed a short, vaguely worded statement vowing to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They also agreed to improve bilateral relations.
At the Stockholm talks, U.S. negotiators “previewed a number of new initiatives that would allow us to make progress in each of the four pillars of the Singapore joint statement,” Ortagus, the State Department spokesperson, said.
“In the course of the discussions, the U.S. delegation reviewed events since the Singapore summit, and discussed the importance of more intensive engagement to solve the many issues of concern for both sides,” she added.
At this point, it’s not clear when that engagement will occur.