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Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister pours scorn on idea of U.S. talks

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an event at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
(Felipe Dana / Associated Press)

The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dismissed prospects for an early resumption of diplomacy with the United States, saying Tuesday that U.S. officials’ expectations of talks would “plunge them into a greater disappointment.”

Kim Yo Jong’s blunt statement indicates that the diplomatic impasse over North Korea’s nuclear program is likely to continue unless the North suffers greater pandemic-related economic difficulties and needs urgent outside assistance, some experts said.

Hope for a restart of nuclear talks flared briefly after Kim Jong Un said last week that his country must be ready for both dialogue and confrontation, though he emphasized the latter. President Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, called Kim’s comments an “interesting signal.”

On Tuesday, Kim Yo Jong derided Sullivan’s response.

“It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted her as saying. “The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”

Shin Beomchul, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said North Korea has been communicating the same message for months — that it has no intention to return to talks unless the U.S. offers meaningful concessions, likely in the form of eased economic sanctions. The Biden administration, for its part, doesn’t want to budge either, he said.

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North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has faced rumors about his health on previous occasions when he walked with a cane and missed a major state anniversary.

“Both parties are locked in a waiting game. North Korea wants the United States to make concessions first, and the United States has no intentions to match a level of action the North is demanding,” Shin said.

On Monday, during a visit to Seoul, Sung Kim, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea affairs, said Washington was willing to meet the North “anywhere, anytime without preconditions.” But he stressed that the Biden administration would continue to pressure North Korea with sanctions over its nuclear and missile ambitions.

Just before Kim Yo Jong’s statement was released Tuesday, Sung Kim met South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young and said Washington and Seoul remained committed to seeking the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through diplomacy. Lee said he hoped North Korea would return to the negotiating table at an early date and called the current situation “a very good chance” to resume talks.

Sung Kim later met South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and the two said they would strive to resume U.S.-North Korea talks, Moon’s office said. The South Korean government didn’t immediately comment on Kim Yo Jong’s statement.

After declaring three years ago that his country had fulfilled its decades-long ambition to become a nuclear power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned his attention to fixing an ailing economy that was undermining his pledge to better the lives of his people.

As a precondition for the talks’ resumption, North Korea has repeatedly called on Washington to lift its “hostile policy” toward it, an apparent reference to the U.S.-led sanctions and regular military drills with South Korea.

North Korea may only ease its stance if it can no longer endure its ongoing economic hardship, some experts said. Kim Jong Un has admitted that North Korea faces what he described as its “worst-ever” crisis because of drastically reduced trade caused by pandemic-related border closings, mismanagement, the economic sanctions and crop-killing storms last year.

The deadlock “could be prolonged unless there’s a change in the conditions facing the North, such as greater economic or pandemic-related difficulties,” Shin said.

“A mutual distrust and antagonism run so deep that the resumption of the North Korea-U.S. talks is difficult,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Even if the U.S. and North Korea meet, it’ll never be easy to find common ground.”

Last Thursday, Kim Jong Un ordered officials to prepare for both dialogue and confrontation, “especially to get fully prepared for confrontation,” in order to protect national security and dignity.

U.S. officials have suggested that Biden will take the middle ground between former President Trump’s direct dealings with Kim and former President Obama’s policy of “strategic patience.” Details of Biden’s North Korea policy haven’t been publicly released.

U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at halting North Korea’s nuclear program has stalled since February 2019, when Washington rejected a North Korean demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities during a summit between Kim and Trump.


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