“All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia,” Pyongyang’s chief negotiator says.
North Korea said after its first talks with South Korea in more than two years that it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were aimed only at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea.
The talks were the first between the two Koreas since 2015 and were held at the Peace House on the South Korean side of Panmunjom truce village.
In a joint statement after 11 hours of talks on Tuesday, North Korea pledged to send a large delegation to next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea but made a “strong complaint” after Seoul proposed talks to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.
“All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia,” Pyongyang’s chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, said.
“This is not a matter between North and South Korea, and to bring up this issue would cause negative consequences and risks turning all of today’s good achievement into nothing,” Ri, chairman of the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, warned in closing remarks.
Officials from both sides said they agreed to meet again to resolve problems and avert accidental conflict, amid high tension over North Korea’s program to develop nuclear missiles capable of hitting the United States, but Pyongyang said disarmament would not be part of the discussions.
Tuesday’s meeting followed a year of ramped-up North Korean missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, which have prompted a stepped-up US-led campaign to toughen UN sanctions, which Pyongyang has called an act of war.
TRT World’s Joseph Kim reports.
Washington cautiously welcomes meeting
The US State Department welcomed Tuesday’s meeting between North and South Korean officials aimed at ensuring a safe Winter Olympics, and said it would work with Seoul to ensure North Korea’s participation does not violate UN sanctions.
“The United States remains in close consultations with ROK (South Korean) officials, who will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council over North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
A spokesperson for the White House’s national Security Council said North Korean participation in the Olympics would be “an opportunity for the regime to see the value of ending its international isolation by denuclearising.”
The White House did not immediately comment on the United States being the only potential target of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
‘A good thing’
The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings, but Trump later called them “a good thing” and said he would be willing to speak to Kim.
“At the appropriate time, we’ll get involved,” Trump said on Saturday, although US-North Korean talks appear unlikely, given entrenched positions on both sides.
The United States – which has warned that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea – insists that any future talks must have the aim of denuclearisation, and the North-South thaw has not altered the US intelligence assessment of North Korea’s weapons programs.
The consensus, according to five US officials familiar with the classified analysis, is that Kim remains convinced the United States is determined to overthrow him and that only a nuclear arsenal that threatens America can deter that.
One of the officials said the North-South talks were likely to follow the pattern of past diplomatic efforts, in which the North has benefited from additional food and other aid without making any concessions on the weapons front.
The additional danger now, said a second official, was that Kim would seek to use the talks to take advantage of Trump’s sometimes bellicose rhetoric to try to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.
UN cheers talks
On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the progress made in the talks, particularly the agreement to hold military-to-military talks, calling this “critical to lowering the risk of miscalculation.”
Guterres welcomed “the agreement to work to ease military tensions, hold military-to-military talks, and reopen the inter-Korean military hotline,” his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said in a statement.
He also welcomed North Korea’s decision to send a delegation to the Olympics and said he hoped for the resumption of dialogue leading to denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula.
In spite of the North Korean negotiator’s remarks, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it believed Tuesday’s talks could lead to discussion of a “fundamental resolution” of the nuclear issue.
“We will closely coordinate with the United States, China, Japan and other neighbours in this process,” it said, adding that Seoul had asked North Korea to halt acts that stoke tension.
Earlier on Tuesday, Seoul said it was prepared to lift some unilateral sanctions temporarily so North Koreans could visit for the Winter Olympics.
North Korea said its delegation would include athletes, high-ranking officials, a cheering squad, art performers, reporters and spectators.
Talks to work out details would be held soon, the South’s unification ministry said.
“We came to this meeting with the thought of giving our brethren, who have high hopes for this dialogue, invaluable results as the first present of the year,” Ri said at the start of the meeting.
Seoul said it proposed reunions of divided families in time for February’s Lunar New Year holiday, but the joint statement made no mention of any agreement on this.
Seoul said North Korea had finished technical work to restore a military hotline, with normal communications set to resume on Wednesday.
North Korea cut communications in February 2016, following South Korea’s decision to shut down a jointly run industrial park.
Seoul also said North Korea responded “positively” to the South’s proposal for athletes from both sides to march together in the Olympic opening ceremony.
Such a joint parade has not happened since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China.
China’s Foreign Ministry said it was happy to see talks between North and South Korea and welcomed all positive steps. Russia echoed the sentiment, with a Kremlin spokesman saying: “This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary.”
Analysis of talks
Some US-based analysts have hailed the talks as an opening for diplomacy, but others see an attempt by North Korea to weaken US pressure so that it is eventually accepted as a nuclear-armed state.
Evans Revere, a former senior US diplomat for East Asia, said that by engaging Seoul, North Korea was clearly seeking to weaken the US-South Korean alliance and it was important that Seoul had raised the nuclear issue to show it was not just a US-North Korea matter.
Harry Kazianis, of the conservative Center for the National Interest, saw the talks as an attempt by Kim to buy time to complete development of his weapons program.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach called the talks “a great step forward in the Olympic spirit” and said the IOC would await official proposals on the number and names of athletes from the North and such matters as flag, anthem and ceremonies.