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N Korea at crossroads

Trump's absence made North Korean envoy call off trip

Cancellation deepens standoff, affecting inter-Korean projects

Pompeo's visit to Pyongyang in October failed to iron out differences between the U.S. and North Korea.   © Kyodo

SEOUL/NEW YORK -- North Korea apparently called off a meeting with the U.S. scheduled for Thursday after learning that President Donald Trump would not be able to attend, further complicating Pyongyang's denuclearization talks and possibly affecting its economic cooperation with the South.

The U.S. State Department had announced Monday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet in New York with Kim Yong Chol, a vice chairman of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. But Kim did not show at the Beijing international airport on Wednesday for his connecting flight. The State Department later said that the talks "will now take place at a later date."

North Korea told the U.S. that both sides were too busy to meet right now, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at a parliamentary session on Thursday.

Kim Yong Chol received an unusually warm welcome this May in Washington, where he handed Trump a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But Trump would not have been able to meet with Kim Yong Chol this time around, since the president is scheduled to visit France starting Friday, American media report. The envoy may have been planning to deliver a letter from the leader to Trump as well.

Dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea has stalled for over a month, with Pompeo last speaking with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on Oct. 7. The U.S. had attempted to arrange a meeting between Stephen Biegun, its special representative for North Korea, and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, but Pyongyang rebuffed the offer.

Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he could meet with Kim a second time "sometime early next year." But major obstacles remain. Kim told Pompeo last month that he would allow inspections at the Punggye-ri nuclear complex and the missile-testing site at Tongchang-ri, but the two sides have not agreed on specifics.

Kim demanded at the time that the U.S. lift sanctions on the North, in addition to his usual calls for an official declaration to end the Korean War. He has only escalated his rhetoric since through state media and other channels. A recent piece by the Korean Central News Agency even hinted that Pyongyang could return to a two-track development strategy, working to simultaneously improve its economy and nuclear capabilities.

The lack of progress with the U.S. is expected to spill over to North Korea's planned economic projects with the South, such as railway construction supposed to start on a still-unspecified date in early December. Kim agreed to visit Seoul by the end of the year when he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in this September, expecting to have made progress with the U.S. by then.

But Trump shows no signs of letting up, meaning that sanctions still stand in the way. "I'd love to take the sanctions off, but they [the North Koreans] have to be responsive, too," he told reporters on Wednesday.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Thursday that the North Koreans appeared to have canceled the meeting "because they weren't ready" and that "Secretary Pompeo and the administration stand ready to talk."

Speaking to reporters at the U.N. ahead of a closed-door meeting to discuss sanctions against the North, Haley defended the U.S. decision to keep up the pressure, arguing that Washington has already "given a lot of carrots up," including Pompeo's multiple visits to the North and the halting of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.

"We're not going to get rid of the stick, because they haven't done anything to warrant getting rid of the sanctions yet," she said.

Russia, an ally and trading partner of the North, had requested Thursday's U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss the sanctions following concerns from some council members that humanitarian aid had not been allowed into the North.

"I think what Russia's trying to do is earn brownie points with North Korea," Haley said, suggesting that Russia seeks to relax U.N. restrictions because it is not following them. "They're cheating," she said.

"Whether it's on the laborers -- trying to bring North Korean laborers over -- they're cheating with the refined petroleum. ... They just don't want to get caught. We've caught them before, we've called them out. If they do it again we'll call them out again," Haley said.

But Russia's tactics "don't change the real threat that exists in North Korea," she said. She called on the North to act, saying there is "no time to stall" or delay.

"The U.S. has shown a lot of actions," Haley said. "Now it's North Korea's turn."

Haley said after the meeting that while the Russians had suggested that they were concerned about the humanitarian situation in North Korea, "the truth always comes out, and at the end, what they're looking for is to lift banking restrictions, which are exactly some of the things that we know that they're not following through on appropriately."

Humanitarian agencies say banking restrictions have made their jobs significantly harder in the North.

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