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Official tone gets softer on nukes

Mar 13,2019
North Korean state media on Tuesday reaffirmed the country’s pledge to carry out complete denuclearization and continue dialogue with the United States amid international concern over signs of another missile launch.

“It is our unwavering stance that we move toward complete denuclearization, that a permanent, secure peace regime take root on the Korean Peninsula and new relations be established between [North Korea and the United States],” read an editorial published by Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean state media outlet, in the name of a Foreign Ministry official.

DPRK Today - another state propaganda outlet - also published the message, the first official statement from North Korea about its commitment to denuclearization since the second summit between its leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month. The DPRK is an acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Regarding the summit, which broke down after Trump reportedly refused to acquiesce to the North’s demand for sanctions relief, the editorial said that Kim pledged to continue “productive dialogue” in the future to solve the issues at stake through “close cooperation.”

A third state outlet, the Tongil Sinbo, on Monday departed from earlier state media coverage about the summit to call it a success, adding that Kim and Trump had promised to meet again when they bade each other farewell at Hanoi.

This wave of softened language from the North’s official outlets contrasts with the tension built in the last few days over resumed activities by the regime at its missile factory near Pyongyang and a launch pad in Tongchang-ri that suggested it was preparing to launch another rocket.

Analysts have mixed opinions about the potential for another launch by the North - which would violate United Nations resolutions and endanger a year’s worth of rapprochement - with some suggesting it could actually try to propel a civilian-purposed satellite into space in line with the country’s recent emphasis on science and technology.

Most, however, leaned toward the view that North Korea’s move to restore the dismantled facilities at the launch site is aimed at building leverage in its talks with Washington and push Trump into granting sanctions relief.

Whatever the case, Tuesday’s official statement suggests that internal discussions in Pyongyang over the regime’s next move may have been concluded in the direction of continued negotiations.

Yet there is little indication the North would yield on its demand for a gradual, tit-for-tat approach to denuclearization, one that has been repeatedly brushed off by the United States.

An editorial in the Tongil Sinbo Monday said that Kim’s offer at the summit to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for partial sanctions relief was “the most realistic and far-reaching denuclearization measure.” The piece went on to urge Trump administration officials to “step forward to a path suited to the expectations of humanity” by returning to the negotiations with “guts and a correct viewpoint”

It remains to be seen whether that rift over sanctions relief can be overcome, but the White House has also made clear it is willing to resume talks. On Monday, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton - who has been busy making rounds on U.S. television shows to spin the Hanoi summit as anything but a failure - spoke with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, on the phone, indicating the South may have a greater role to play as a mediator in the process.

On Tuesday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced Seoul would continue dialogue with the North this year, including through summits between its leaders.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]