U.S., North Korea to hold talks this week seeking 'interim' deal: media

SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States and North Korea plan to hold high-level talks in Washington this week to discuss a second meeting between their leaders, South Korean media said on Tuesday, as the old enemies seek an “interim” deal to revitalizes nuclear talks.

The meeting, led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, is due on Thursday or Friday, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified diplomatic source familiar with the issue.

They are expected to finalize the date and venue of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the newspaper said.

The U.S. embassy in Seoul referred questions to the White House. The White House offered no immediate comment on the Chosun Ilbo report, while a State Department official said: “We don’t have any meetings to announce.”

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified diplomatic source as saying Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol could meet this week.

The North Korean delegation could visit the United States “as soon as this week” but plans have not been finalised, a CNN reporter, citing an unidentified source, said on Twitter.

Trump wrote Kim Jong Un a letter, which was flown to Pyongyang and hand delivered over the weekend, the CNN reporter added, citing the source.

South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman told reporters the North and the United States were “in contact” but it was “inappropriate” to comment on plans for talks.

A meeting this week could mean the two sides are nearing a compromise after months of standoff over how to move forward in ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Trump and Kim pledged at their first summit, in Singapore in June, to work toward denuclearization “of the Korean peninsula”. But there has been little significant progress.

Pompeo, who made several trips to Pyongyang last year, sought to meet his counterpart last November, but the talks were called off at the last minute.

Contact was resumed after Kim’s New Year’s speech, in which he said he was willing to meet Trump “at any time,” South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, told reporters last week.

In Seoul, South Korea deleted a description of North Korea as an “enemy” in its defense white paper released on Tuesday, though it said its weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to peace and stability.

INTERIM MEASURES

The United States and South Korea have been discussing how to respond to any North Korean steps toward denuclearization, South Korean officials told Reuters.

The United States is considering easing sanctions in exchange for the North’s discarding and sending abroad its intercontinental ballistic missiles, in addition to freezing its nuclear program, the Chosun Ilbo said, citing its source.

U.S. responses could include exemptions from sanctions for inter-Korean business and opening a liaison office, Seoul officials said.

“Those ideas are being discussed as interim measures, not as an end state, in order to expedite the denuclearization process, because the North wouldn’t respond to any demand for a declaration of facilities and weapons,” said a senior South Korean official, who declined to be identified.

“The end goal remains unchanged, whether it be complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or final, fully verified denuclearization.”

The official said a Trump and Kim meeting could happen by early March, though added: “No one knows what Trump is thinking.”

Kim reiterated his resolve to meet Trump during a meeting last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump said this month he had received a “great” letter from Kim and would probably meet him again soon.

“At the second summit, they’ll probably focus on reaching a possible interim deal, rather than a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

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China says always plays positive role over Korean peninsula

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that China always supports contact between the United States and North Korea, and that Beijing has always played a positive role in pushing for a resolution of the Korean peninsula issue.

Ministry spokesman Lu Kang made the comment at a regular news briefing, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Chinese capital only days after warning he may take an alternative path if the United States does not ease sanctions and pressure on his isolated country.

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Explainer: Despite warning of 'new path,' North Korea's options limited

SEOUL (Reuters) – In his New Year address on Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned he might take a “new path” if Washington maintains sanctions amid his country’s push for economic development, but experts say it may be too late to change the trajectory of negotiations.

Kim did not specify what the new approach might be. His warning may sound similar to the bellicose rhetoric that Pyongyang often deployed before last year’s summit, but he cannot jeopardize the hard-won thaw and has few options beyond appealing directly to U.S. President Donald Trump, experts say.

State media have in recent weeks accused the State Department of risking returning to “exchanges of fire” of the past by ramping up sanctions, while crediting Trump for his efforts to continue talks.

As both sides struggle to find a breakthrough in stalled talks, the speech shows Kim shifting the focus from denuclearization and hinting at including countries other than the United States.

Q: IS THIS A SIGN OF FRUSTRATION?

A: Kim vowed to work towards denuclearization at a summit with Trump in Singapore in June. But since then there has been little progress, with a high-level meeting between the two sides canceled abruptly in November.

Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War in response to the dismantlement of its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility.

Despite goodwill responses from Washington, such as a halt of some major military exercises with South Korea, U.S. officials have said North Korea’s initial steps were not confirmed and could be easily reversed.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said North Korea would not be forced to provide a list of nuclear weapons and locations, and a U.S. nuclear envoy offered to facilitate humanitarian aid.

But Kim’s speech on Tuesday called for a “complete end” to all joint exercises and slammed the sanctions campaign.

“His message was ‘we have done what we said we would at Singapore, but the United States has done very little in return,’” said Vipin Narang, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Q: WHAT DOES ‘NEW PATH’ MEAN?

A: North Korea’s state media has stepped up criticism of the United States, warning of a return to the era of confrontation if sanctions and pressure continued. But that indicates Pyongyang’s frustration rather than the “new path” Kim suggested, experts say.

“His speech chiefly emphasized the need for a fair deal, and it’s extremely unlikely for them to go back,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

Instead, “new path” may refer to focusing on concessions that don’t involve broad denuclearization in favor of action-for-action commitments.

Kim Joon-hyung, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said one possible scenario was the North’s dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, as offered at the Singapore summit, and listing hidden facilities in return for eased sanctions, such as a partial restart of inter-Korean economic projects.

Kim Jong Un said in the speech he was willing to reopen the Kaesong factory park and allow access to the North’s Mount Kumgang resort “without conditions.”

Yet there remains an opportunity to limit Kim’s arsenal, Narang said.

“The United States should find out what the price for a cap on North Korea’s nuclear program would be, as it would be an important and realistic objective,” he said.

Q: DOES NORTH KOREA WANT TO SHIFT ITS FOCUS FROM AMERICA?

A: The New Year address called for a launch of multilateral talks to officially declare an end to the Korean War, an idea also floated previously by South Korea.

That could mean working with China, South Korea and others in pressing Washington, professor Kim said. But other experts, including former South Korean nuclear envoy Lee Soo-hyuk, were skeptical that would happen given the deadlocked bilateral talks, the Sino-U.S. trade war and Trump’s dislike for multinational mechanisms.

“This will not be easy, and neither side will achieve outright success, but diplomacy is possible,” said Patrick Cronin, chair for Asia-Pacific security at the Hudson Institute in New York. “China and others may also be invited to play a role.”

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Kim says ready to meet Trump 'anytime,' warns of 'new path'

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Tuesday he is ready to meet U.S. President Donald Trump again anytime to achieve their common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but warned he may have to take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.

In a nationally televised New Year address, Kim said denuclearization was his “firm will” and North Korea had “declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.”

Kim added that Pyongyang had “taken various practical measures” and if Washington responded “with trustworthy measures and corresponding practical actions … bilateral relations will develop wonderfully at a fast pace.”

“I am always ready to sit together with the U.S. president anytime in the future, and will work hard to produce results welcomed by the international community without fail,” Kim said.

However, he warned that North Korea might be “compelled to explore a new path” to defend its sovereignty if the United States “seeks to force something upon us unilaterally … and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure.”

It was not clear what Kim meant by “a new path,” but his comments are likely to further fuel scepticism over whether North Korea intends to give up a nuclear weapons program that it has long considered essential to its security.

In response to the news, Trump wrote on Twitter, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”

There was no immediate comment from the White House. Asked for a reaction, a U.S. State Department official said: “We decline the opportunity to comment.”

South Korea’s presidential office, however, welcomed Kim’s speech, saying it carried his “firm will” to advance relations with Seoul and Washington.

Kim and Trump vowed to work toward denuclearization and build “lasting and stable” peace at their landmark summit in Singapore in June, but little progress has been made since.

Trump has said a second summit with Kim is likely in January or February, though he wrote on Twitter last month that he was “in no hurry.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made several trips to Pyongyang last year but the two sides have yet to reschedule a meeting between him and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol after an abrupt cancellation in November.

Pyongyang has demanded Washington lift sanctions and declare an official end to the 1950-1953 Korean War in response to its initial, unilateral steps toward denuclearization, including dismantling its only known nuclear testing site and a key missile engine facility.

SANCTIONS

U.S. officials have said the extent of initial North Korean steps were not confirmed and could be easily reversed. Washington has halted some large-scale military exercises with Seoul to aid negotiations, but has called for strict global sanctions enforcement on impoverished North Korea until its full, verifiable denuclearization.

Kim’s reference to pledges not to make nuclear weapons could indicate a first moratorium on such weapons production, although it was not clear if this was conditional. While Pyongyang conducted no nuclear or missile tests last year, satellite images have pointed to continued activity at related facilities.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, reiterated last month that Washington had no intention of easing sanctions but had agreed to help South Korea send flu medication to North Korea, saying such cooperation could help advance nuclear diplomacy.

Analysts said Kim’s message sent clear signals that North Korea was willing to stay in talks with Washington and Seoul this year – but on its own terms.

“North Korea seems determined in 2019 to receive some sort of sanctions relief … The challenge, however, is will Team Trump be willing to back away from its position of zero sanctions relief?” said Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest.

“Kim’s remarks seem to suggest his patience with America is wearing thin.”

After racing toward the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States in 2017, Kim used last year’s New Year speech to warn that “a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office” and order mass production of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.

But he also offered to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South in February, setting off a flurry of diplomacy that included three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the meeting with Trump in June.

This year, Kim said inter-Korean relations had entered a “completely new phase,” and offered to resume key inter-Korean economic projects banned under international and South Korean sanctions, without conditions.

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North Korea postponed meeting with Pompeo because 'they weren't ready': Haley

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – North Korean officials postponed a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that had been scheduled for this week because they were not ready, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters on Thursday.

“North Korea said they needed to postpone it for whatever reason,” she said. “Secretary Pompeo was ready to come. We continue to stand ready to talk but I don’t think that there was some major issue. I have talked with the administration and basically what we’re looking at is they postponed it because they weren’t ready.”

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