WASHINGTON - Pyongyang is pushing for major concessions from Washington before it agrees to resume working-level talks or hold another summit with the U.S., experts say.
“What the North Koreans are indicating that they want right now (are) … two things essentially” as “preconditions before they schedule any talks,” said Harry Kazianis, director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. “I think that is some kind of promise on sanctions relief, and I also think they want some sort of written or verbally given security guarantees.”
North Korea said Tuesday that the U.S. decision to postpone joint military drills with South Korea is not enough for it to return to the negotiating table.
“We demand that the U.S. quit the drills or stop it once and for all,” said Kim Yong Chol, chairman of North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). “The U.S. should not dream of negotiating for denuclearization before dropping its hostile policy.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Sunday that the U.S. and South Korea agreed to postpone a joint air force drill scheduled for later this month. He described the move as “an act of good will” aimed at providing an atmosphere for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.
Earlier in the month, the U.S. had announced the drills would be scaled back to provide room for diplomacy. North Korea responded to the reduced drills saying they amount to “throwing a wet blanket over the spark” of denuclearization talks that are “on the verge of extinction.”
In a statement carried by the KCNA on Monday, North Korea expressed its refusal to hold talks because the U.S. has been reluctant to provide concessions.
“We are no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us,” said North Korean Foreign Ministry adviser Kim Kye Gwan. “As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can boast of.”
Monday’s statement came as an apparent response to President Donald Trump’s Sunday tweet urging North Korea to “act quickly” to “get a deal done.” He added, “See you soon!”
The talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalled since the failed summit at Hanoi held in February as a result of divergent positions held by the two sides. Kim demanded that Trump provide sanctions relief in exchange for partial denuclearization, while Trump asked Kim to fully denuclearize North Korea before any lifting of sanctions.
The U.S. attempted to negotiate ways to bridge that gap with North Korea through working-level talks held in Stockholm in October, but North Korea walked away from the negotiating table.
North Korea has been insisting the U.S. change its position before the end of the year, which Pyongyang imposed as a deadline for the U.S. to meet.
“The game the North Koreans are playing is to put as much pressure on the U.S. as possible by laying down this end-of-the-year marker or deadline or ultimatum, by suggesting that bad things will happen if the U.S. doesn’t change its position,” said Evans Revere, a former State Department official who negotiated with North Korea extensively. “Their point is, 'We want you to change your position and move away from the stance you took at Hanoi.'”
Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow and former executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), sees grim prospects for talks to resume, due to the differences over what each side is expecting from the other.
“There is almost no prospect for working-level talks this year … because the two parties are on very different paths,” said Fitzpatrick, adding, “North Korea is doing a very good job of putting pressure on the U.S.”
Fitzpatrick said North Korea is pushing for further concessions after the U.S. postponed the military drills.
“In addition to the postponement of the drills, it’s trying to get sanctions relief,” said Fitzpatrick, adding, “The U.S. is not going to bend over backward to make concessions on sanctions.”
Kazianis said North Korea is mistaken if it thinks Trump is in a position to grant concessions to Kim either directly through another summit or through working-level talks while the impeachment inquiry is underway.
“I don’t think they understand the pressure that Donald Trump is in,” said Kazianis. “He has no political bandwidth to forge some sort of grand bargain with Kim Jong Un right now. There is no way he would be able to sell hawkish Republican senators or really almost anybody here in Washington that he would give sanctions relief and all these other concessions either upfront or during working-level talks.”
Joseph DeTrani, who served as the special envoy for the six-party denuclearization talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, thinks working-level talks should and could resume.
However, he said the U.S. will not and should not grant more concessions than it had with the postponement of the joint drills.
“Suspending the joint military exercises with (South Korea) was a sign of extreme goodwill on the part of the U.S.,” said DeTrani. “I think the U.S. is showing a lot of flexibility on that. I think that’s enough. (If) North Korea is putting conditions on another summit for other deliverables from the U.S., they are terribly mistaken. I just don’t see that ever happening.”
Christy Lee contributed to this report originated by the VOA Korean Service.