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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

North Korea say it is still open to talks with the US

Offer follows Donald Trump's cancellation of June summit in Singapore

A protester holds signs during an anti-Trump rally near the US embassy in Seoul on May 25, 2018. Jung Yeon-je / AFP
A protester holds signs during an anti-Trump rally near the US embassy in Seoul on May 25, 2018. Jung Yeon-je / AFP

North Korea said on Friday it was willing to talk to the United States "at any time" after President Donald Trump abruptly cancelled a summit, a decision that once more cast a pall of uncertainty over the Korean peninsula.

Mr Trump blamed "open hostility" from the North Korean regime for his decision to call off the planned talks with Kim Jong-un next month, and warned Pyongyang against committing any "foolish or reckless acts."

In a letter to Mr Kim, Mr Trump announced on Thursday he would not go ahead with the June 12 summit in Singapore, following what the White House called a "trail of broken promises" by the North.

Pyongyang's immediate reaction to the sudden U-turn was conciliatory.

First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Mr Trump's decision "unexpected" and "regrettable". But he left the door open, saying officials were willing "to sit face-to-face at any time".

Just before Mr Trump announced the cancellation of the talks, North Korea declared it had "completely" dismantled its nuclear test site in the country's far north-east, in a carefully choreographed goodwill gesture ahead of the summit.

But the chances of success for the unprecedented face-to-face had recently been thrown into doubt as threats were traded by both sides.

Mr Trump's announcement came a day after Pyongyang hardened its rhetoric, calling comments by Vice President Mike Pence "ignorant and stupid".

"Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting," Mr Trump said in his letter to Mr Kim.

But he said talks could still go ahead "at a later date".

On Friday he used Twitter to respond to the latest conciliatory noises from Pyongyang, saying: "We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace."

His decision on Thursday blindsided US ally South Korea, which had brokered the remarkable detente between Washington and Pyongyang.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the move "shocking and very regrettable" as he scrambled his national security team.

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said Seoul would continue talking to Mr Kim's regime which he believed "remains sincere in implementing the agreement and making efforts on denuclearisation and peace-building".

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged the parties to keep talking, as did Singapore, while Russia's President Vladimir Putin held out hope that dialogue would resume and the talks would eventually take place.

Japan said it would maintain "close co-operation" with the United States and South Korea.

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Politically, Mr Trump had invested heavily in the success of the planned summit. But as the date drew nearer, the gulf in expectations between the two sides became apparent.

Washington has made it clear it wants to see the "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" of the North.

But Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrent until it feels safe from what it terms US aggression.

A senior White House official said Pyongyang had demonstrated a "profound lack of good faith" in the run-up to the summit - including standing up the White House's deputy chief of staff, who had travelled to Singapore for preparatory talks.

"They waited and they waited. The North Koreans never showed up. The North Koreans did not tell us anything - they simply stood us up," the official said.

The White House viewed North Korea's objection to a routine US-South Korean joint military exercise - and its recent cancellation of a meeting with the South Koreans - as a breach of its commitments leading up to the summit.

It also was unhappy about the North's failure to allow international observers to verify the dismantling of its Punggye-ri test site, the staging ground for all six of its nuclear tests, inside a mountain near the border with China.

But the North's Kim Kye Gwan countered that their angry statements were "just a backlash in response to harsh words from the US side that has been pushing for a unilateral denuclearisation".

Both Mr Pence and Mr Trump's hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton had recently raised the spectre of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up atomic weapons only to die years later at the hands of US-backed rebels.

Experts warned that cancelling the meeting could have knock-on effects, especially among allies already rattled by Mr Trump's unpredictability.

"In a contest of who can be the most erratic leader, President Trump beats Kim Jong-un hands-down," Joel Wit, founder of the respected 38 North website which monitors North Korea, wrote on Twitter.

"His unsteady hand has left everyone scratching their heads, including our ROK (South Korean) allies."

But others said Trump's willingness to walk away could extract further concessions from Pyongyang.

"North Korea will have to propose more detailed plans for denuclearisation if it wants to talk in the future," said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Asan Institute of Policy Studies.

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