Stalled talks with North Korea indicate larger unravelling of progress

Stalled talks with North Korea indicate larger unravelling of progress
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The cancelation of a highly anticipated meeting between Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump to attend World Economic Forum in Davos for second straight year Pompeo to lead delegation to 'Trump of the Tropics' inauguration The Hill's Morning Report — No deal in sight as shutdown looms MORE and North Korean officials has experts worried the quest for Pyongyang’s denuclearization is quietly unraveling.

Progress on North Korea's denuclearization has stalled in the five months since President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE and Kim Jong Un’s meeting in June in Singapore as both sides are unwilling to make concessions.

The issue has largely been unnoticed leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections.

“If no one is willing to make the first major concession and talks collapse, we could be on a path that takes us back to the days of fire and fury and name calling. And that is a path that could take us once again to the brink of nuclear war,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest.

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“We must avoid that at all costs.”

Pompeo was scheduled to meet with Kim Yong Chol, former head of North Korea's spy agency who has been leading nuclear talks for North Korea. 

The isolated region pulled out of the talks, set to take place in New York on Thursday, a day before they were set to begin. The State Department said only that the talks would be postponed, and would resume “when our respective schedules permit.”

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyNikki Haley: 'Israel wants a peace agreement but it doesn’t need one' Showdown at the Security Council? North Korea evading US sanctions: report MORE later told reporters that North Korea delayed further denuclearization “because they weren’t ready,” but called for talks to resume.

“There’s no time to stall or no time to delay or try and get past not going through with what was agreed in Singapore,” Haley said before and after a closed-door U.N. Security Council session on sanctions against Pyongyang.

She added, however, that the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang was “cordial,” there was no “major issue” and that she believed the talks would be rescheduled.

Trump last week brushed off concerns over the slow pace of negotiations, telling reporters, “We’re in no rush. We’re in no hurry,” to schedule a second meeting between himself and Kim Jong Un.

“We’re very happy how it’s going with North Korea. We think it’s going fine,” Trump said.

While at the June summit, the Trump and Kim signed a short, vague statement that pledged a “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. The document did not include how the two countries planned to achieve the goal or what denuclearization meant to both sides.

Since then, Trump has declared the North Korea problem solved, but recent satellite images show Pyongyang has not made any more progress on dismantling a key missile test site since August, according to U.S.-based North Korea monitor 38 North.

The images from Oct. 31 are of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which includes a missile engine testing stand and a launch pad that Kim verbally agreed in Singapore to destroy. 

Other satellite imagery from 38 North shows the country’s Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Pilot Plant — one of North Korea’s two largest declared uranium ore concentrate facilities — is still running. Natural uranium is a key material in the process to produce highly enriched uranium for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

And earlier this month North Korea threatened to restart its nuclear weapons program if Washington did not help lift financial sanctions, backed by the U.N. Security Council since 2006.

“The North Korea challenge is slowly moving from a fragile detente to a full blown crisis — all over again,” Kazianis said.

Pompeo earlier in November said that the United States would not lift sanctions until it could verify that the isolated nation had halted its missile and nuclear programs.

And Haley on Friday said the United States “have given a lot of carrots up until now. We’re not going to get rid of the stick because they have not done anything to warrant getting rid of the sanctions yet.”

Kazianis believes the North Koreans canceled the meeting to gain leverage and show their anger about the sanctions.

“Cancelling meetings and not showing up is not a new tactic for the Kim regime, they have done this for decades,” he said.

“However, they seem upset because they have not been rewarded — aka the removal of at least some economic sanctions — for what they feel is good behavior, such as a voluntary ban on nuclear weapons and missile testing.”

With sanctions still in place, the resumption of small-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea, and both sides still at odds over a viable path towards denuclearization “Pyongyang decided to walk away, at least for now.”

Retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who served as a U.S. adviser to the Second Republic of Korea Army, said he was not worried by the recently canceled meeting as "this is how the North Koreans negotiate."

"They always have done this where they put on a good face ... then they throw a monkey wrench into it," he told The Hill. 

He added that "nothing ever happens fast," and that the process could take up to four years as the two sides still must come to consensus on what is each side willing to give to keep talks going.

"You have to find out who needs this the worst. We have all the time in the world, we're not pressed, we're not under sanctions. We're still in the driver seat," Davis said.

But Kazianis said with both sides nervous about making the first big concessions to keep relations moving forward, "we are at a fork in the road."

"All of this year’s hard work is on the verge of being thrown away,” Kazianis added.

The president, however, does not seem worried.

“The sanctions are on, the missiles have stopped, the rockets have stopped. ... I’d love to take the sanctions off, but they [North Korea] have to be responsive, too. It’s a two-way street. But we’re not in any rush at all. There’s no rush whatsoever,” Trump said last week.