By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, April 13 (Yonhap) -- Weeks after North Korea's cryptic threat to explore a "new path" that stoked fears of a return to its provocative tack, leader Kim Jong-un made clear his desire to stick to nuclear negotiations with the United States, at least until the end of this year.
During a key parliamentary gathering on Friday, Kim voiced his willingness to hold a third summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, calling for a "fair" and "mutually acceptable" agreement, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
It was his first public statement on the process of summit diplomacy, which has been called into question after his second talks with Trump in Hanoi in February fell apart due to differences over the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization and Washington's sanctions relief.
"If the U.S. proposes holding a third North Korea-U.S. summit with a right attitude and a right method, we have a willingness to do it one more time," the leader was quoted as saying.
"I will not hesitate in signing an agreement only if it is written in a way that meets the interests of the DPRK and the U.S. ... this will entirely depend upon with what attitude and calculus the U.S. would come up with," he added. DPRK stands for the North's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kim's open expression of a desire for talks with Trump, albeit time-restricted, is expected to facilitate the resumption of the nuclear dialogue between the two countries that has been stalled since the Hanoi summit, observers said.
It came a day after Trump told South Korean President Moon Jae-in at their summit in Washington that he is willing to maintain the momentum for dialogue and is open to "various smaller deals" -- a sign of possible flexibility in future talks with Kim.
The weekslong saga following the Hanoi summit was marked by tensions, wild speculation and negative projections, as Pyongyang has restored a key long-range rocket launch site and continued running its uranium enrichment facility at the mainstay Yongbyon nuclear complex alongside its threat to suspend dialogue with Washington.
The North's leader's continued emphasis on "self-reliance" has aggravated concerns that Pyongyang would continue its defiant stance -- or revert to a provocative tack -- with the growing nuclear program, no matter how heavily the crippling sanctions weigh on its moribund economy.
Despite the mention of a possible third summit with Trump, Kim does not appear willing to wait for long, as he called for Washington's "courageous decision until the end of the year."
Kim's self-imposed deadline appears intended to highlight the fact that Pyongyang can still endure the mounting pressure from the biting U.S.-led international sanctions regime, as the U.S. stresses sanctions as the main tool to change the North's behavior.
According to the KCNA, Kim dismissed the need for "preoccupation with the summit with the U.S. due to a thirst for the lifting of sanctions."
Days earlier, Kim also noted the need to deal a "telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring the North to its knees."
Right after the Hanoi summit, Trump argued that he walked away from it because the North demanded the lifting of the sanctions in their "entirety." Pyongyang later argued that it demanded only partial sanctions relief, but Washington officials retorted that the North's demand was tantamount to total sanctions relief.
Kim's mention of sanctions, however, may paradoxically highlight his country's urgent need to secure sanctions relief to make progress in his so-called "new strategic line" adopted last year to focus on economic development, as well as a five-year national development scheme rolled out in 2016.
Due to the sanctions, The North's trade with China, its only major patron, has also significantly dwindled, making it increasingly difficult for him to deliver on a pledge not to make his people to "tighten (their) belt again."
Absent any tangible outcome from the scheme, the North's leader may lose face in a key future congress of the ruling Workers' Party at which the party brass would take stock of his achievements over the previous years, observers said.
Time does not appear to be on Trump's side either, as he may need to score a foreign policy coup ahead of a full-blown election battle next year. Should there not be any substantial progress by the end of this year, Trump may find it difficult to present his diplomacy with Kim as his legacy.
Some observers have said that any failure of Trump's summit diplomacy could give his political opponents fodder to highlight that once again, Pyongyang has stalled for time to blunt the momentum of the sanctions regime while continuing its weapons of mass destruction program.
Doubts remain as to whether the U.S. and the North can find common ground.
Pyongyang has favored a phased-in, incremental approach toward its nuclear disarmament, while Washington has shown a desire for a "big deal" that may mean sweeping denuclearization steps by the North first before any significant rewards are given.
In bridging that gap, South Korean President Moon may step up his role as intermediary. During his summit with Trump, Moon unveiled his plan to seek another summit with the North Korean leader.
Speculation has also emerged that Moon could send a special envoy to Pyongyang to find a solution for a nuclear deal with Washington.
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