Why have North Korea-US denuclearisation talks stalled?

A North Korean envoy accused US officials of sticking to their "old viewpoint and attitude" when he broke off the Stockholm talks.
A North Korean envoy accused US officials of sticking to their "old viewpoint and attitude" when he broke off the Stockholm talks.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes have been at a standstill after a working-level meeting with the United States in October in Stockholm collapsed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set a year-end deadline for Washington to change its stance in the negotiations, a deadline US officials have downplayed as artificial.

North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, meanwhile, says denuclearisation is now off the table.

Here are the competing demands that led to the deadlock:

HOSTILE POLICY

A North Korean envoy accused US officials of sticking to their "old viewpoint and attitude" when he broke off the Stockholm talks.

Little was known about what North Korea and the US specifically sought and offered during that meeting.

But Pyongyang has been demanding US corresponding action to its proposed dismantling of a nuclear testing venue, including the lifting of crippling sanctions.

 
 
 
 

North Korea offered to abolish its Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for the revocation of five UN resolutions during a failed summit between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump in February in Vietnam.

But the Americans argued that decommissioning Yongbyon did not suffice, calling for Pyongyang to transfer nuclear weapons and bomb fuel to the US.

North Korea had also said it dismantled its Sohae missile launch site as an initial step toward denuclearisation, but the facility was used on Sunday (Dec 8) for what Pyongyang said was a "very significant test".

North Korea has stepped up calls for the US to end joint military drills with South Korea, as well as retracting its "hostile policy" including criticising Pyongyang's human rights record.

'COMPLETE, VERIFIABLE, IRREVERSIBLE'

US officials came to Stockholm seeking a "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation" of North Korea, and pushed for a moratorium on weapons tests as a first step, a diplomatic source in Seoul told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Although some media reports said the US had planned to propose temporarily lifting sanctions on coal and textile exports, the source said the Stockholm talks did not get into details.

Washington and Seoul have contemplated possible areas where sanctions be eased on the condition they can be immediately put back if needed, such as a resumption of South Korean tours to the North.

North Korea, in contrast, has sought a "systematic guarantee" for the lifting of sanctions, singling out five UN resolutions at the Hanoi summit, the source said.

The five UN resolutions, adopted in 2016 and 2017, chiefly limited North Korea's mineral exports and banned financial transactions, which were expected to prevent Pyongyang from earning at least US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) a year.

"But the Americans can't take the risk of easing sanctions first, having already given a lot of gifts to Kim without substantial progress on denuclearisation, including summits," the source said.

"Sanctions are basically all they have to press North Korea."

US negotiators tried to fix a date for the next round of talks when the Stockholm meeting fell apart, but North Korean officials were uncooperative, the source said.

DEADLINE

As the year-end deadline approaches, North Korea has ratcheted up tensions, firing dozens of missiles and warning Mr Kim might take a different path if diplomacy with the US fails.

Mr Kim was "displeased" at Mr Trump's remarks last Tuesday that he could use military force against North Korea "if we have to", a top North Korean commander said last Wednesday, warning of "prompt corresponding actions".

Mr Trump's re-election battle and the impeachment inquiry against him might have emboldened Mr Kim to overestimate North Korea's leverage, the diplomatic source said.

Recent weapons tests raised concerns North Korea could resume nuclear and long-range missile testing suspended since 2017. Analysts described last month's launch of shorter range weapons as a Thanksgiving reminder for Mr Trump.

"North Korea is pushing the envelope little by little with the tests, and the Americans are saying if those tests were not a big deal, but they're not OK," the source said.

"If there's no progress until year-end, North Korea would have to do something, maybe an intercontinental ballistic missile test. Then the United States has no option but to respond even more sternly, and in a worst-case scenario, the negotiations could break down for good."