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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea tightens pressure on Trump with collapse of talks

Pyongyang turns aggressive as US reaches for progress ahead of 2020 election

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, last met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Korean Demilitarized Zone on June 30.   © AP

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- The breakdown of nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea appears to be part of Pyongyang's negotiating strategy to pry concessions from President Donald Trump, who faces re-election in 13 months.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, met Saturday with counterpart Kim Myong Gil on the outskirts of Stockholm, the first negotiations between the two sides in about seven months. But after eight and a half hours of talks, Kim appeared in front of the North Korean Embassy and read a statement that criticized the U.S. and blamed Washington for the collapse of talks.

The U.S. arrived "empty-handed" and had "not discarded its old stance and attitude," Kim said, as he set a year-end deadline for Washington to change course.

A spokesperson for the North's foreign ministry condemned Washington on Sunday for "exploiting the DPRK-U.S. talks for its domestic politics," using the acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The ministry spokesperson denied Washington's contention that the two sides agreed to meet again in two weeks, saying North Korea has "no intention of holding [negotiations] before the U.S. takes a substantial step to completely and irreversibly end its hostile policy."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might have planned for the talks to fail, an expert on Pyongyang said, taking an aggressive stance with the knowledge that the clocking is ticking for Trump to score a diplomatic victory ahead of the November 2020 presidential election.

Trump has turned a blind eye to the North's firing of short-range ballistic missiles and touts dialogue with Pyongyang as a diplomatic accomplishment. He undoubtedly wishes to avoid the heightened tensions that would follow if North Korea resumed tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental U.S.

Pyongyang fired a new type of ballistic missile from a submarine Wednesday, showing that it can raise the stakes.

Kim Myong Gil set a high hurdle for the U.S. Full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is possible, predicated on the removal of all threats against North Korea's security and all obstacles that block its development, the lead negotiator said.

North Korea insists on an incremental process in which the U.S. guarantees the North's security or lifts sanctions one step at a time in return for denuclearization measures taken. Some experts think Pyongyang ultimately will seek a withdrawal of American forces from South Korea or a complete end to sanctions.

The U.S. State Department countered the North's claim that it came empty-handed, saying in a statement that Washington "brought creative ideas and had good discussions."

Without being specific, the State Department said the proposals were meant to advance the four points in the joint statement from Trump and Kim Jong Un's first summit in Singapore in June 2018. But those four points lack any concrete measures, calling for establishing new bilateral relations and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Speculation ahead of the weekend's working-level talks suggested that the U.S. would alter its all-or-nothing approach.

U.S. digital news site Vox had reported that Washington is considering a suspension of United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang's textile and coal exports for 36 months. This move would be in exchange for the verifiable closure of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and another measure, most likely the end of North Korea's uranium enrichment.

Biegun had said earlier that while the two sides are negotiating, the U.S. may provide humanitarian assistance in return for the North freezing development of weapons of mass destruction. Though it is unclear whether he made this proposal Saturday, Washington is likely considering a compromise that would contradict its policy of not easing sanctions until full denuclearization.

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