By Choe Sang-Hun
North Korea threatened on Friday to suspend negotiations with the Trump administration over the North’s nuclear arms program and said its leader, Kim Jong Un, would soon decide whether to resume nuclear and missile tests.
Addressing diplomats and foreign correspondents at a news conference in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said that personal relations between Kim and Trump were “still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.” But she said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, had created an “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust” that thwarted the top leaders’ negotiations in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month.
After the Hanoi meeting ended without a deal, the North Korean leader had serious doubts about the merits of continuing negotiations with Trump, Choe said.
“We have neither the intention to compromise with the U.S. in any form nor much less the desire or plan to conduct this kind of negotiation,” said Choe, according a report from Pyongyang by The Associated Press, which has a bureau there. She also said the North might end its self-imposed moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. “Whether to maintain this moratorium or not is the decision of our chairman of the state affairs commission,” she said, referring to Kim by one of his several titles. “He will make his decision in a short period of time.”
In a briefing with reporters Friday, Pompeo sought to lower any tensions related to Choe’s comments, framing them as nothing more than rhetorical speed bumps that tend to follow both summits. To make the point, he noted that he had been assigned a “gangsterlike” reputation by the North Koreans but the name-calling had done nothing to hinder negotiations. “I saw the remark that she made,” Pompeo said of Choe. “We are hopeful that we can continue to have conversations and negotiations.”
Pompeo added that Kim had made multiple promises during the Hanoi summit that he would take steps to wind down his nuclear program. Despite the unpredictable messaging, he said, the administration would continue to take Kim at his word.
Bolton, for his part, told reporters at the White House that any suggestion that he and Pompeo had undermined the negotiations was inaccurate and that he had been in touch with national security officials in South Korea about the remarks. “We’ve discussed their reaction and our reaction,” Bolton said. “I’d like to speak further within the U.S. government before we respond.”
The office of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who did much to broker the talks between the North and the United States, said it was closely monitoring the situation. “Whatever the situation, our government will try its best to help resume North Korea-U.S. negotiations,” it said in a statement. The breakdown of the Hanoi meeting revealed a wide gap between North Korea and the United States over how to proceed with denuclearization.
North Korea insisted, as it has before, on moving in phases. In Hanoi, Kim offered to dismantle the plutonium, uranium-enrichment and other facilities at its Yongbyon site, north of Pyongyang, and demanded that Washington in return lift sanctions that have been imposed on the North since 2016.
Trump rejected the offer, demanding more substantial steps toward denuclearization. North Korea is widely believed to run at least one other uranium-enrichment plant outside Yongbyon, as well as keeping other elements of its nuclear program in secret locations around the mountainous country. U.S. officials have said that North Korea asked the United States at the Hanoi talks to lift five rounds of sanctions that have been imposed since 2016. But North Korean officials, including Choe on Friday, have insisted that they demanded that only those sanctions that affected the civilian economy be lifted.
The Americans are concerned that pulling back from major sanctions would diminish their leverage over North Korea and that the North would use any new revenues to subsidize its nuclear weapons program. U.N. sanctions have been the most punishing, banning all of the North’s key exports, including coal, and drastically cutting back its fuel imports.
Kim took a 65-hour train ride to meet Trump in Hanoi, and it was seen as a major embarrassment for him to return home without sanctions relief. By avoiding direct criticism of Trump and blaming the Hanoi talks’ breakdown mainly on his aides, Choe appeared to signal that North Korea still hoped Trump might soften Washington’s position.
But since the Hanoi talks, analysts have feared that North Korea might resume weapons tests in a bid to gain more leverage, and Choe’s warnings Friday could be a sign that North Korea is preparing to move in that direction.
“On our way back to the homeland, our chairman of the state affairs commission said, ‘For what reason do we have to make this train trip again?’” Choe said Friday, according to the AP. “I want to make it clear that the gangsterlike stand of the U.S. will eventually put the situation in danger.”
She said the United States had thrown away “a golden opportunity” in Hanoi, adding that the North was no longer interested in negotiating unless Washington changed its “political calculation.”
North Korea declared a moratorium on its nuclear and long-range missile tests after flight-testing its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017. A resumption of tests could scuttle the rapprochement between North Korea and the United States that began last year, after a series of belligerent threats from both sides during Trump’s first year in office.