North Korea won’t “unilaterally disarm” before the United States repealed sanctions imposed against Pyongyang and help bring an end to decades of mistrust between the two countries, Foreign Ministry Ri Yong Ho said.
“Since we have sufficiently consolidated national defense capabilities and war deterrence to cope with the nuclear threats against [us] that have lasted over several decades, concentrating all efforts on economic construction has come up to us as a historic task,” Ri said on Saturday during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. “There will be no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first.”
Ri went on to praise Chairman Kim Jong-un’s first steps toward normalizing relations with South Korea and the U.S., including the destruction of nuclear test sites, promising to not continue expanding North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and ending missile tests.
The North has also returned some U.S. remains from the Korean War.
“Comrade Chairman Kim Jong Un conducted energetic summit-level diplomatic activities with a firm determination to turn the Korean Peninsula into a land of peace, free of both nuclear weapons and nuclear threats,” Ri added, as U.S. and South Korean delegates jotted notes.
He also said Kim has “made important breakthroughs in improving North-South relations and [North Korea]-U.S. relations, a turning point for the dramatic easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
“The continued sanctions is deepening mistrust, it is the reason behind the recent deadlock,” Ri said. “The perception sanctions will bring us to our knees is a pipe dream of the people who are ignorant about us.”
Analysis: Ri also spoke of new economic development policies that Kim is said to be pursuing, though it wasn’t clear what policies differ from existing ones.
As for the sanctions, Pyongyang was bound to get to them and, obviously, sooner rather than later. It makes sense given the hardships existing sanctions imposed on North Korea. But will the Trump administration grant some sanctions relief?
President Trump has repeatedly stated that as negotiations continue, so too will the existing sanctions regime. The president’s thinking, and that of his diplomatic and national security team, is that as long as a harsh sanctions regime remains in place, they serve to pressure Pyongyang into advancing the negotiations to the point where Kim agrees to give up his nuclear stockpile first.
Ri was stating official Kim policy at the UN: That’s not going to happen. So we may be approaching an impasse.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to travel to North Korea again this month. It’s likely Ri was laying down a marker on Kim’s behalf ahead of the next meeting: The lifting of sanctions must be put on the table before any additional progress on denuclearization can be had, is essentially what Kim is saying.
It’s not at all clear that President Trump is willing to do that; based on his public statements, we’d have to assess that he would not be amenable to that demand. But if he’s not, it’s looking like talks won’t progress and may even regress.
It’s not as if the U.S. hasn’t done anything to win Kim’s trust. The president canceled (for the foreseeable future) joint annual war games with South Korea, which was always a major source of contention in Pyongyang. But also the U.S. has stated it will step up sanctions enforcement on the high seas to prevent ‘illegal’ transfers of commodities to North Korean ships such as oil. But it’s not clear how the administration plans to do that, particularly if the supplying ship belongs to a great power like Russia or China.
Trump could agree to some sanctions relief, and he just might do that if he sees the talks stalling. But it doesn’t look at all like Trump would agree to widespread sanctions reductions, and it’s probably a good idea for North Korea to expect that he won’t.
Where that leaves negotiations, we should know more in the next few weeks ahead of the next scheduled meeting between Pompeo and Kim.