A recent series of conciliatory gestures by the US would keep momentum for dialogue with North Korea alive, but it is unlikely to lead North Korea to the negotiating table for denuclearization, experts said Sunday.
US Vice President Mike Pence was expected to give a speech on North Korea’s human rights abuses last week, but the plan was scrapped due in part to concerns about angering or alienating the North and further derailing US-North Korea nuclear talks, ABC News reported, citing a source.
Washington’s top nuclear envoy said Friday that the US will review easing travel restrictions on North Korea to facilitate humanitarian aid to the impoverished country, in an apparent attempt to appease Pyongyang, which is not engaging Washington in working-level and senior-level talks.
Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, told reporters in Seoul on Friday that the US is willing to move to the next stage of discussions with the North, and willing to explore “a number of other things” to build trust with the reclusive country.
The US also greenlighted inter-Korean projects, including the two Koreas’ groundbreaking ceremony for inter-Korean railway and road connection and their joint recovery of war remains.
But US officials were guarded against such moves being interpreted as signaling sanctions relief.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Biegun reiterated Washington will stick to unilateral and international sanctions against North Korea until it takes more irreversible, verifiable steps toward relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.
A deadlock in North Korea-US denuclearization talks are likely to continue despite Washington’s friendly gestures, experts say.
“Loosening restrictions on humanitarian aid signals a shift in the US’ position toward taking a flexible approach in negotiations with North Korea to keep alive momentum for dialogue,” said Shin Beom-chul, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “The US is sending a positive message that it could discuss any reward except for sanctions relief.”
“But North Korea is unlikely to come to the negotiating table for now, as it appears to be dragging its feet to gain more concessions from the US in the lead-up to the second summit between North Korea and the US.”
Hailing this year’s progress in nuclear diplomacy with the North, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview that Washington is “counting on” a second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump said the summit could be held in January or February.
Washington’s move still fails to address a “fundamental problem” — sanctions against North Korea, another expert said.
“North Koreans think that other problems can be solved only when a fundamental problem is solved,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University. “What the US has offered does not address what North Korea fundamentally wants — improvement in relations and building trust with the US. It only contributes to forming a mood for dialogue.”
North Korea sees no point of engaging the US in working-level and senior-level talks because what it wants is trust-building measures — such as sanctions relief and an end-of-war declaration — that require US President Donald Trump to make a bold decision, he said.
North Korea has been calling for the easing of sanctions against the communist state in return for all the measures it has already taken, including the dismantling of its major nuclear test site in Punggye-ri and missile engine test site in Tongchang-ri.
The North views sanctions relief as a major gesture by the US to build mutual trust.
On Thursday, North Korea said through its official Korean Central News Agency that lifting sanctions on the communist nation would be a “touchstone” of Washington’s commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.