North Korea wants sanctions eased to restart talks with US, South Korea says

US federal court ordered the seizure of an oil tanker suspected of making deliveries to North Korea in violation of US sanctions against Pyongyang on July 30, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea wants international sanctions banning its metal exports and imports of refined fuel and other necessities lifted before it restarts denuclearisation talks with the United States, South Korean lawmakers said on Tuesday (July 3).

The North has also demanded the easing of sanctions on its imports of luxury goods to be able to bring in fine liquors and suits, the lawmakers said after being briefed by Mr Park Jie-won, head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea's main intelligence agency.

The briefing came a week after the two Koreas restored hotlines that North Korea suspended a year ago, the first hint in months that North Korea might be more responsive to engagement efforts.

"As a precondition to reopen talks, North Korea argues that the United States should allow mineral exports and imports of refined oil and necessities," Mr Ha Tae-keung, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, told reporters, citing Mr Park.

"I asked which necessities they want the most, and they said high-class liquors and suits were included, not just for Kim Jong Un's own consumption but to distribute to Pyongyang's elite," he said, referring to North Korea's leader.

North Korea's state-run media made no mention on Tuesday of any new request for the lifting sanctions to restart talks.

The UN Security Council has imposed a wide range of sanctions on North Korea for pursuing its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in defiance of UN resolutions.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006 and test-fired missiles capable of hitting the United States.

The United States, Japan and South Korea have also imposed their own sanctions on North Korea.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, ahead of a historic meeting in Singapore between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump in 2018.

Mr Trump had two subsequent meetings with Mr Kim but without progress on getting the North to give up its nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for sanctions relief.

Mr Kim Byung-kee, another South Korean legislator, said North Korea appeared to have "harboured discontent" with the United States for not offering concessions for the moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.

"The United States should be able to bring them back to dialogue by readjusting some sanctions," Mr Kim Byung-kee said, citing Mr Park.

A senior official in President Joe Biden's administration told Reuters in March that North Korea had not responded to behind-the-scenes diplomatic outreach since mid-February.

After a review of North Korea policy, the US administration said it would explore diplomacy to achieve the goal of complete denuclearisation of North Korea but would not seek a grand bargain with Mr Kim Jong Un.

Military exercises involving US and South Korean forces, which North Korea sees as preparations for an invasion, could stymie any positive steps.

The North Korean leader's sister, Ms Kim Yo Jong, who has assumed a significant role in the administration, warned South Korea on Sunday that joint exercises with the United States would undermine a thaw between the two Koreas.

South Korean legislator Mr Kim Byung-kee quoted Mr Park as saying that the question of exercises had to be considered: "There's also a need to consider responding flexibly to South Korea-US military exercises."

Legislator Ha said Mr Kim Jong Un and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in had expressed a willingness to rebuild trust and improve ties since April and Mr Kim had asked to reconnect the hotlines.

The lawmakers said North Korea needed of some 1 million tonnes of rice even after releasing reserves saved in case of war, as its economy had been battered by the coronavirus and bad weather last year.

South Korea's central bank said last week North Korea's economy suffered its biggest contraction in 23 years in 2020.

"They're running out of the reserves and banking on some 400,000 tonnes of summer crops including barley and potatoes they've just harvested," Mr Kim Byung-kee said.

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