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Seoul sees US, NKorea diplomacy as contrast to Iran tensions


AP Seoul
The US and North Korea both feel the need to resume diplomacy and are trying to narrow their differences for new summit talks, a top South Korean official said Wednesday as he contrasted their efforts with the tensions surrounding Iran's collapsing nuclear accord.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters in Seoul that the two adversaries need to continue building up trust following the collapse of the February talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
"The lesson that the US and North Korea can have from the Hanoi summit is they must not repeat a failure," Kim told The Associated Press and six other news agencies during a roundtable interview on Wednesday.
After fears of war over the North's provocative run of weapons tests in 2017, Washington and Pyongyang held a series of talks including two summit talks between Trump and Kim.
The Hanoi summit collapsed due to squabbling over US-led sanctions on North Korea, but the two leaders recently exchanged personal letters in an apparent effort to keep diplomacy alive.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week that North Korean and US officials are holding "behind-the-scenes talks" to arrange a third summit, though he and Kim Yeon-chul offered no details.
North Korea continued to express its dissatisfaction with South Korea after the Hanoi talks, saying Thursday it will never go through South Korea again in its dealing with the United States. The North's Foreign Ministry also repeated its demand that Washington work out new proposals to revive diplomacy by the end of December.
Trump is keeping observers guessing, too, telling reporters as he departed for the Group of 20 summit in Japan that while he wouldn't be meeting Kim Jong Un at that event, he "may be speaking with him in a different forum." Trump is scheduled to visit South Korea after his stop in Japan.
Hanging over the prospect of future talks with North Korea are the rising tensions between the US and Iran. Those stem from a decision by the Trump administration last year to withdraw from a landmark 2015 agreement designed to limit Iran's own nuclear ambitions.
The US has slapped new sanctions on Tehran, including fresh ones directly targeting the country's revered supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his associates. Those came after tensions increased significantly when Iran shot down a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
Last month, Iran announced that it was suspending its commitments under the 2015 deal. It imposed a July 7 ultimatum for European countries that are still part of the accord to offer a better deal and long-promised sanctions relief, or Iran will begin enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels.
Kim Yeon-chul said that while both the Iran and North Korea nuclear issues share some things in common, they should not be viewed in the same way because of what he called joint efforts by Washington and Pyongyang to salvage the stalemated nuclear talks.
"Both North Korea and the United States feel some sort of need for negotiations and they are trying to make efforts together to bridge their differences on sticking points. So I wonder we should look at (the two issues) bit differently," he said in response to questions about Iran.
While Trump had been opposed to the Iran accord negotiated under his predecessor Barack Obama, the North Korean nuclear issue "is something that President Trump is trying to make some success" of based on previous experiences, Kim Yeon-chul added.
Moon, a liberal who met Kim three times last year, lobbied hard between Washington and Pyongyang to facilitate diplomacy and find a negotiated resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue.
Before becoming Moon's Unification Minister in April, Kim Yeon-chul was a well-known liberal scholar who expressed passionate support for engagement and economic cooperation with North Korea and skepticism about the usefulness of sanctions. He previously served as the president of the state-sponsored Korea Institute for National Unification and a professor at Inje University in South Korea's Gangwon Province.
Kim Yeon-chul said a nuclear breakthrough could depend on whether North Korea finds meaningful concessions to pair with a verified dismantlement of its primary but aging nuclear complex in Yongbyon.
That facility produces plutonium and highly enriched uranium two main nuclear materials.
North Korea put Yongbyon's dismantling on the table in Hanoi.
The Americans rejected that offer as too little to justify major sanctions relief because the North is believed to be operating other enrichment sites hidden around the country.
"Yongbyon still has an important meaning and role (in the process)," Kim Yeon-chul said. "Of course there are other sites. But the closure of Yongbyon would not only cease (the North's) plutonium production but also cut back its production of enriched uranium to a degree, so the meaning wouldn't be small."

Kim also said there are ongoing discussions between the United States and South Korea over inter-Korean economic projects that have been held back by US-led sanctions against the North.
During their third summit in Pyongyang last September, Moon and Kim Jong Un pledged to resume operations at a jointly run factory park at the North Korean border city of Kaesong and restart South Korean tours to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort when possible, voicing optimism that sanctions would end and allow such activities.
Following the collapsed summit in Hanoi, however, North Korea has significantly reduced its engagement and diplomatic activities with South Korea. It has instead made nationalistic calls demanding that Moon break away from Washington and resume economic cooperation between the Koreas.

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First Published: Jun 27 2019 | 7:05 PM IST

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