North Korean top diplomat Jo Chol Su attends the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference in Moscow, Russia November 8, 2019. REUTERS…
North Korean top diplomat Jo Chol Su attends the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference in Moscow, Nov. 8, 2019.

WASHINGTON - U.S. and North Korean officials held a meeting at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow, a former U.S. official who attended the conference told VOA’s Korean Service, as the denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington remain deadlocked.

“I was told that there was such a meeting between the U.S. and North Korean officials,” Thomas Countryman, former acting undersecretary of state of arms control and international security, said after the conference that ended Saturday.

U.S. officials, led by Mark Lambert, director of the office of Korean affairs at the State Department, attended the three-day annual Moscow Nonproliferation Conference.

Jo Chol Su, head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s North American department, led the delegation from Pyongyang.

Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, was also present but did not engage in talks with North Korean representatives other than to exchange greetings. About 250 participants from 40 countries also attended.

Organized by Russia’s Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), the conference is held every year to discuss global nuclear issues, including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

 U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman talks to the media in this file photo, at the government building in Skopje, Macedonia, February 2011.
FILE - U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman talks to the media at the government building in Skopje, Macedonia, February 2011.

Relaying North Korea’s remarks, Countryman said, “I did not hear anything new. I heard the same old rhetoric from speakers about hostile policy, about denuclearization on the entire world, about the peace-loving nature of the DPRK” — in English, North Korea’s official name for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Denuclearization talks stalled

The meeting between the U.S. and North Korea comes at a time when talks between the two sides remain deadlocked because of an inability to reach a compromise on how to synchronize the steps of denuclearization and sanctions relief.

Washington has been maintaining its position of keeping sanctions on North Korea until it takes steps toward full denuclearization, while Pyongyang has been insisting the U.S. first relax sanctions.

The denuclearization talks have remained deadlocked since the failed Hanoi Summit in February, despite Washington’s attempts to break the stalemate at the working-level talks in Stockholm in early October. The Stockholm talks broke down when North Korea walked away from the negotiating table.

Kelly Magsamen, former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs in the Obama administration, told VOA’s Korean Service that both Kim and Trump have not defined the scope of denuclearization.

“I don’t think that Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision about the scope of what he’s going to give up in terms of his nuclear weapons,” Magsamen said. “Likewise, President Trump hasn’t figured out what he can accept in terms of any kind of capability that the North Koreans may continue to possess. So, I don’t think either side has done the deep thinking about the end state we’re trying to get to.”

People watch a television news screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on…
FILE - People watch television file footage of a North Korean missile launch at a railway station in Seoul, Oct. 31, 2019.

North Korean tests

While North Korea has been engaged in talks with the U.S. this year, it has conducted multiple tests since May, ramping up pressure for sanctions relief and demanding the U.S. change its position by the end-of-the-year deadline Pyongyang has insisted Washington meets.

During the nonproliferation conference, Jo reiterated that the U.S. change its stance by Pyongyang’s self-imposed deadline.

“We’ve given the United States quite a lot of time, and we’re waiting for an answer by the end of this year,” Jo said. “But I must say that the window of opportunity closes every day.”

On Wednesday, North Korea again warned that the U.S. will face consequences if it does not meet the end of year deadline.

“If the current flow in the political situation doesn’t change, the United States will soon face a bigger threat and harsh suffering that will force them to acknowledge their mistake,” said an unnamed spokesperson for North Korea’s State Affairs Commission in a statement carried by state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Baik Sung-won and Christy Lee contributed to this report from VOA's Korean Service.