SEOUL/MOSCOW -- North Korea is demanding the removal of the U.S. secretary of state from their denuclearization talks, part of Pyongyang's effort to ramp up pressure on Washington, as leader Kim Jong Un also plans his first trip to Moscow.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's involvement would only "entangle" the dialogue, the North Korean Central News Agency reported a diplomatic official as saying on Thursday.
The official took issue with Pompeo's "interpretation" of Kim Jong Un's speech last week calling for the U.S. to change its attitude and be more flexible by the end of the year. Pompeo, on Monday, brushed aside those demands and told reporters that the U.S. and North Korea needed to "collectively" move forward toward denuclearization.
The North Korean official emphasized that "Everyone has a clear interpretation" of Kim's speech, that called for Washington to change its ways. "Only Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of the State, is talking nonsense that its meaning is to finish the working level negotiation between the DPRK and the U.S. by the end of the year, which subjects him to public ridicule," Kwon Jong Gun, director general of the Department of American Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, using the initials of North Korea's full name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
If bilateral talks were to resume, "I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but other person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us," Kwon was quoted as saying.
The demand is only one of several provocations by Pyongyang seen as aimed at ruffling U.S. feathers. Kim will visit Russia later this month on invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian president's office announced Thursday.
Kim is expected to meet Putin on April 24 and 25 in the eastern city of Vladivostok, with preparations already underway, Russian media reported. This will mark the first visit by a North Korean leader to Russia since Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, met then-President Dmitry Medvedev in August 2011.
Some experts believe Kim will make the trip in a special train. Putin will likely travel to Beijing after their meeting to attend an international conference on China's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.
As denuclearization talks with Washington stall, Kim is trying to exert pressure on U.S. President Donald Trump. Russia is at odds with the U.S. over Syria and other issues, and also wields significant influence on United Nations measures against the North as a permanent member of the Security Council. Kim wants Russian support for a swift easing of sanctions, as well as for a gradual denuclearization process.
Kim also appears to be pressuring the U.S. from home. He supervised a test-fire of a "new-type tactical guided weapon" on Wednesday along with several senior military officials, the North's state-run KCNA has reported.
The report described the weapon as having a "peculiar mode of guiding flight" and "powerful warhead," but offered few other details. Kim praised the scientists and workers involved for "great work in increasing the country's defense capabilities," and said there is no weapon the North cannot make if it puts its mind to it, according to the KCNA.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said it is looking into the report.
Because the U.S. military reportedly did not detect any ballistic missile launches, there is speculation that the test likely involved a low-altitude missile with less than a 100 km range.
But North Korea's overtures to Russia could trigger heavy backlash from the Trump administration and the Republican Party, which traditionally is hawkish on Russia and the North. The party could increase pressure on Trump not to give in to Kim in negotiations.
Meanwhile, Putin has been wooing North Korea in hopes of increasing its clout in the Korean Peninsula and securing its future interests there. Moscow is also wary of the U.S. building up its military presence in East Asia, such as by expanding its missile defenses.
Lifting sanctions on North Korea would deliver economic benefits to Russia as well, paving the way for cargo trains between the Korean Peninsula and Siberia and a natural gas pipeline straight to South Korea.