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U.S. still open to talking to North

State Department takes an optimistic tone as impasse continues
May 24,2019
While U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed “disappointment” over some recent developments regarding North Korea, Washington still remains open to negotiations, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.

Both President Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have “remained very clear” that “the United States is open to negotiations,” said Morgan Ortagus, the new State Department spokesperson, in a press briefing in Washington.

Her remarks came a day after North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song criticized the U.S. seizure of its cargo ship, the Wise Honest, in a rare news conference at the United Nations (UN). Ambassador Kim on Tuesday demanded the return of the vessel, accused of exporting North Korean coal in violation of U.S. and UN Security Council sanctions by the U.S. Justice Department, adding that Pyongyang will “watch sharply every move” by Washington.

Ortagus noted that Pompeo said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “has told him at least six times that he would denuclearize.”

She had been asked to comment on the South Korean government announcement last week that it will provide $8 million in food aid through international agencies to North Korea in the hopes to persuade Pyongyang to return to negotiations and whether Washington is taking any active action to resume dialogue.

The denuclearization negotiations have been at an impasse since Kim and Trump’s second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended early with no deal on Feb. 28. The North demanded the easing of some sanctions while the United States insisted on denuclearization measures that went beyond the dismantlement of the key Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“These talks, these discussions, are ongoing,” Ortagus added, though she said she likely wouldn’t “get into the specifics” over the “next year and a half, hopefully, that you see me.”

The White House has emphasized that it is in no hurry for a nuclear deal with North Korea. Ortagus noted, “But this is clearly one of the most important national security issues of our time.”

Ortagus said she will not “telegraph from the podium” what sort of outreach has been happening with Pyongyang, namely through the so-called New York channel, or the North Korean mission to the UN in New York. But she underscored that “talks and negotiations are ongoing” and that Trump and Pompeo have made clear “that they see a vision of a very bright future for the North Koreans if they would like to continue along the path that they have committed to.”

Washington has downplayed North Korea’s recent moves that could be seen as a departure from its overtures for engagement over the past year. This includes the testing of short-term projectiles and missiles earlier this month and a return to some of its threatening language against Washington.

Seoul has likewise been reserved in speaking on the seizure of the North Korean ship, and Kim In-chul, the South Korean oreign Ministry spokesman, only told reporters in Seoul Thursday on Ambassador Kim’s press conference that, “We are closely watching the situation.”

Trump said in an interview with Fox News Sunday that Kim Jong-un at the Hanoi summit wanted to “get rid of” only one or two of five key nuclear sites in North Korea and had not been “ready for a deal.”

But some U.S. analysts are calling for Trump to take the steps to a so-called smaller deal on denuclearization to end the current standoff in negotiations, and are criticizing the hard-line approach taken by some officials like John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser. Joel Wit, a senior fellow with Stimson Center and director of North Korea analysis website 38 North, and Richard Sokolsky, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote an open memo to Trump published in the National Interest Sunday. “You are in this pickle because in Hanoi you decided to take the misguided, deal-killing advice to go big with Kim Jong-un, instead of following your own instincts to strike a smaller, but still important, deal that could have been reached with some hard bargaining,” the piece read.

They said that the so-called small deal, the dismantlement of the North’s Yongbyon nuclear facility in return for lifting some sanctions, “should serve as the basis for further bargaining.”

They advised that Trump should be “willing to allow more limited sanctions relief” such as those that give Seoul “greater leeway in providing assistance to Pyongyang and promoting North-South reconciliation.”

Steps toward normalizing North-U.S. relations, including a peace agreement, should be linked to a second phase agreement toward denuclearization, they added, including a commitment to negotiate before the end of Trump’s first term as president “a halt to the production of all bomb-making material in North Korea in return for the further lifting of U.S. and international sanctions.” They wrote that “politics are in your favor,” despite the inevitability of criticism, and urged Trump to pursue his “own instincts” and “leave the world a more peaceful place when your presidency is over.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]