Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 January 2020

North Korea breaks off nuclear talks with US in Sweden

Pyongyang said American negotiators would not 'give up their old viewpoint and attitude'

North Korean negotiator Kim Miyong-gil reads statement outside the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday, October 5, 2019. AP
North Korean negotiator Kim Miyong-gil reads statement outside the North Korean Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, on Saturday, October 5, 2019. AP

Working-level nuclear talks in Sweden between Pyongyang and Washington broke down, North Korea's top negotiator said on Saturday evening, dashing prospects for an end to months of stalemate.

The talks, at an isolated conference centre on the outskirts of Stockholm, were the first formal discussion since US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in June and agreed to restart negotiations that stalled after a failed summit in Vietnam in February.

North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong-gil cast the blame on what he portrayed as US inflexibility, saying the other side's negotiators would not "give up their old viewpoint and attitude".

"The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off," the negotiator told reporters outside the North Korean embassy.

The US State Department said his comments did not reflect "the content or spirit" of more than eight-and-a-half hours of talks.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said "the US brought creative ideas and had good discussions" with its North Korean counterparts.

She said the US delegation had previewed a number of new initiatives that would pave the way for progress in the talks, and underscored the importance of more intensive engagement.

Ms Ortagus said the US and North Korea would "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," she said.

North Korea's chief negotiator downplayed the US gestures.

"The US raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new method and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table," Mr Kim said.

Swedish broadcaster TV4 said the US Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, who led the team, had arrived back at the US embassy in central Stockholm.

Washington said it had accepted Sweden's invitation to return for more discussions with Pyongyang in two weeks.

The Swedish foreign office declined to give details on the invitation for new talks, or whether Pyongyang had accepted.

Since June, US officials had struggled to persuade North Korea, which is under sanctions banning much of its trade, due to its nuclear programme, to return to the table, but that appeared to change this week when Pyongyang abruptly announced it had agreed to talks.

On Saturday, negotiator Mr Kim accused the United States of having no intention of solving difficulties through dialogue, but said a complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula was still possible.

It would only happen "when all the obstacles that threaten our safety and check our development are removed completely without a shadow of doubt," he said, in an apparent reference to North Korea's desire for Washington to ease economic pressure.

On Sunday, China's President Xi Jinping and North Korea's leader exchanged messages to reaffirm the neighbours' relationship on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties.

China is North Korea's only major ally.

Mr Xi, who has met Kim five times in the past year, said they had "reached a series of important consensuses, leading China-North Korea relations into a new historical era", the official Xinhua news agency said.

Mr Kim replied the two leaders would "resolutely safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the world," Xinhua reported.

The delegation from North Korea arrived in Sweden on Thursday.

Analysts have said Mr Trump and Mr Kim had growing incentives to reach a deal, but it was unclear if common ground could be found after months of tension and deadlock.

The read-out from the talks did not sound very promising, said Jenny Town, a managing editor at 38 North, a programme in Washington that focuses on North Korea.

"I think [North Korea's] expectations were too high that the removal of Bolton would provide more flexibility on what the US wants as initial steps," she said, referring to Mr Trump's hardline former aide John Bolton, abruptly fired last month amid disagreements on how to tackle foreign policy challenges.

"While certainly it removes some pressure for an all or nothing deal, it seems the gap between what the two sides want as a baseline and are willing to reciprocate still has not narrowed," Ms Town said.

An official at South Korea's presidential office said the talks in Sweden were nevertheless the beginning of negotiations, and that South Korea hoped the US and North Korea would keep the momentum of the dialogue.

Only a day after announcing the new talks, North Korea test-fired a new ballistic missile designed for submarine launch, underscoring the need for Washington to move quickly to negotiate limits on Pyongyang's growing arsenal.

Speaking in Athens on a tour of southern Europe while the talks were still under way, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said he was hopeful of progress.

Updated: October 6, 2019 02:58 PM