After North Korea Walks Away From Talks, Experts See Familiar Tactic

SEOUL – North Korea angrily walked away from working-level nuclear talks with the United States on Saturday, with Pyongyang’s top negotiator saying he was “greatly disappointed” with Washington’s inflexible approach. The quick breakdown of the first substantive nuclear negotiations in months raises the possibility North Korea will intensify its provocations, days after testing a new medium-range ballistic missile designed to be launched from a submarine. But the North’s decision to walk away may amount to little more than a rehash of a long-standing negotiating tactic meant to raise pressure on the U.S., some analysts say, predicting Pyongyang may soon return to the talks. After a day of negotiations on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweden, North Korea’s top delegate to the talks read a brief statement to reporters explaining why the North ended the negotiations. “It is entirely because the U.S. has not discarded its old stance and attitude that the negotiation failed this time,” Kim Myong Gil said outside North Korea’s embassy in the Swedish capital. “The U.S. came to the negotiations empty-handed and this shows after all it is not willing to solve the issue,” he added. U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus quickly disputed that characterization, saying Kim’s comments “do not reflect the content or spirit of today’s 8½ hour discussion.” “The U.S. brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” said Ortagus, using the abbreviation of North Korea’s official name. “The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula through the course of a single Saturday. These are weighty issues, and they require a strong commitment by both countries. The United States has that commitment,” Ortagus said. There was no immediate indication that North Korea also accepted the invitation to return to Sweden for more talks. The previous round of U.S.-North Korea talks broke down in February, after U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly ended a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam. At that summit, Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for the removal of five United Nations sanctions that hurt North Korea’s economy. Trump instead wanted Kim to agree to give up his entire nuclear program in a so-called “big deal.” In recent months, Trump had hinted at increased flexibility. Last month, he spoke of the need for a “new method” to the talks — language that closely mirrored Pyongyang’s call for Washington to make more concessions. Trump also fired John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, who had opposed the North Korea talks. “Having so far hinted at a flexible approach, new method and creative solution, the U.S. has heightened expectations,” said Kim, the top North Korean negotiator, Saturday. “But it came out with nothing, greatly disappointed us, and sapped our appetite for negotiations.” While the breakdown of the talks could lead to additional provocations by North Korea, it isn’t clear the negotiations have completely ended, Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat focused on Korea, said. “The North Koreans have a long history of being tough negotiators willing to cancel or withdraw as a tactic, and I think it’s far more likely that they carefully conceived this move ahead of time rather than spontaneously combusting at the negotiating table,” Oba said. “I don’t think this is necessarily the end of working-level diplomacy just yet,” he added. Since the breakdown of the Hanoi talks, North Korea has looked to increase its negotiating leverage by testing 11 separate rounds of missiles — most or all of which appeared to use ballistic missile technology. The latest launch, conducted last week, involved a medium-range ballistic missile designed to be fired from a submarine, according to U.S. officials. The technology adds a dangerous and unpredictable new component to North Korea’s arsenal. Trump has downplayed the North Korean launches, saying they are not long-range and cannot threaten the United States. The launches violate United Nations Security Council resolutions. “The lack of a U.S. response to Kim’s missile tests over the last few months likely reinforces his views that he’s in the driver’s seat,” said Eric Brewer, a former White House National Security Council official who worked on North Korea issues. “Kim can keep growing the program with little or no consequence and hold out for a better deal and/or that next summit with Trump,” said Brewer, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Trump hasn’t yet responded to the breakdown of the latest talks, but on Friday said North Korea would “like to do something.” In those comments, Trump also mentioned what he called the “witch hunt” — a likely reference to the fast-expanding impeach
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