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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea plays hardball with US over reviving nuclear talks

Pyongyang seeks concessions as it leans on China for economic turnaround

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the plenary meeting of the Workers' Party Central Committee on June 17. He called for officials to prepare for both "dialogue" and "confrontation" with the U.S. that day.   © Reuters

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- As speculation swirls around renewing a nuclear dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, Pyongyang has upped the ante by signaling it will not return to the negotiating table without concessions from Washington.

"We are not considering even the possibility of any contact with the U.S., let alone having it, which would get us nowhere, only taking up precious time," North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Son Gwon said in a statement issued Wednesday.

This came the day after Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, discouraged American speculation on a June 17 speech by the North Korean leader urging preparations for both "dialogue" and "confrontation" with Washington. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan had called the remarks an "interesting signal."

"It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself," Kim Yo Jong said in a statement issued Tuesday. "The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment."

Many experts see the recent North Korean remarks as a tactic to extract concessions before engaging in further talks. North Korea has called on Washington to reevaluate its "hostile" policy against Pyongyang and could urge the U.S. to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea this summer.

In the June 17 speech, delivered to a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party's Central Committee, Kim Jong Un said officials needed "especially to get fully prepared for confrontation," as paraphrased by the official Korean Central News Agency. The comment suggested that North Korea could resume nuclear and missile provocations, depending on the American response.

But the Biden administration wants dialogue with no conditions set in advance.

"We continue to hope that the DPRK will respond positively to our outreach and our offer to meet anywhere, anytime without preconditions," said Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, in a Monday meeting with South Korean and Japanese officials in Seoul. He was using the abbreviation for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's formal name.

"We remain prepared to engage in principal negotiations with the DPRK to deal with the challenge of its nuclear program," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday local time.

U.S. President Joe Biden's ultimate goal is to denuclearize North Korea, and he has little incentive to grant Pyongyang concessions before even reopening a bilateral dialogue.

Many in the administration are also skeptical of Pyongyang's commitment to denuclearization. North Korea has no intention of sitting at the negotiating table for its own denuclearization, a source familiar with the matter said.

The decision by then-U.S. President Donald Trump to meet with Kim Jong Un was "a huge compromise," said Bruce Bennett, an adjunct international and defense researcher at the Rand Corp. think tank.

"How many other national leaders did he meet in his four years with three times?" he said of Trump, adding the American leader got little in return. "That was a major recognition of Kim Jong Un," Bennett said.

"That's where President Biden needs to begin, and say, you know, 'You can ask us to make lots more compromises; we've already made plenty.' We haven't seen much from them," he said.

Still, Biden is eager to reopen a dialogue with North Korea, driven partly by his experience as vice president. President Barack Obama hesitated to engage with Pyongyang while in office under his policy of "strategic patience," ultimately giving North Korea time to advance its nuclear and missile technologies.

Meanwhile, some see that recent North Korean remarks as a sign that the country is more interested in strengthening ties with China than reengaging with the U.S.

North Korea shut down its border with China almost a year and a half ago in response to the spread of the coronavirus, contributing to widespread shortages of food and other essentials. Chinese shipments to North Korea plunged 84% on the year for the January-May period, according to the Chinese customs administration.

The food situation in North Korea is "getting tense," a plight brought on by economic sanctions and flooding last year, Kim Jong Un told the Workers' Party's Central Committee on June 15.

North Korean media recently ramped up reporting that highlights Pyongyang's ties with Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party International Liaison Department hosted a joint symposium to celebrate the second anniversary of Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to the North, and the third anniversary of Kim's trip to China, KCNA reported Wednesday.

North Korea and China also mark the 60th anniversary of their mutual defense treaty on July 11. A think tank affiliated with South Korea's National Intelligence Service projects that a senior North Korean official will likely visit China around that time.

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