By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) -- The United States' recent seizure of a North Korean cargo ship suspected of violating U.N. sanctions is deepening uncertainties over ongoing efforts to resume nuclear talks with Pyongyang amid fears that the regime could veer toward a provocative tack.
The U.S. Justice Department said last Thursday that it has held the 17,061-ton Wise Honest on suspicion of transferring coal and machinery in breach of sanctions in the first direct seizure by the U.S. authorities.
The move came hours after Pyongyang fired two short-range missiles into the East Sea, the second such military move in less than a week, stoking fears that it could revert to a pugnacious approach marked by saber-rattling and menacing rhetoric.
On Tuesday, a spokesperson of the North's foreign ministry denounced the seizure as an "outright denial" of the spirit of last year's first summit accord between U.S. President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong-un under which they committed to building "new" bilateral ties.
With mounting tensions, efforts for the early resumption of nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang seem to be losing steam, though the two sides have yet to shut the door for dialogue, observers noted.
"The regime might have felt (surprised) that the U.S. took aim directly at its own assets, whereas in the past Washington sanctioned foreign vessels involved in the activities that flouted the sanctions," Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.
"Should the nuclear negotiations resume, Pyongyang is likely to raise the seizure issue in a test of Washington's good will or intentions because the regime thinks of the seizure as a hostile act against it," he added.
Nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and the North have hit an impasse since the second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February collapsed due to differences over the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization and Washington's sanctions relief.
In an apparent sign of its frustration over the impasse, the North fired a fusillade of projectiles and missiles into the East Sea this month, but it stopped short of breaking its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
The North's angry response to the seizure underscores that Pyongyang is feeling the pinch of sanctions, while Washington remains intent on keeping them as a core lever to induce the regime's denuclearization, analysts said.
"(Wise Honest) is known to be the North's second-largest cargo ship, and given its small economic scale, the seizure could have an impact. Moreover, the North would regard it as the U.S. encroaching upon its sovereignty or its right to life," Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said.
"The North's response through a foreign ministry spokesman concerns not just the ship seizure that came as a result of the sanctions regime. It should be seen as the North's call for an easing of the overall sanctions," he added.
Despite the uptick in tensions, the seizure appears unlikely to seriously hurt diplomacy with the North, observers said, given that both Washington and Pyongyang remain open to dialogue.
Having regarded the North's weapons test moratorium as a key foreign policy coup, Trump has been seen as cautious not to derail diplomacy with the regime, particularly when Washington faces tough challenges abroad, including an escalating trade war with China, military tensions with Iran and a spat with the embattled Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela.
"They're short-range (missiles fired by the North), and I don't consider that a breach of trust at all," Trump said in an interview with Politico last Friday. "And you know, at some point I may. But at this, at this point, no. These were short-range missiles and very standard stuff."
U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun also said on Friday that the door remains open for the North to return to nuclear negotiations, although Pyongyang fired the missiles on the eve of his key meeting with South Korean officials in Seoul.
Seoul has been exploring ways to create fresh momentum for the resumption of the U.S.-North Korea talks, which may include arranging another inter-Korean summit and sending a special envoy to Pyongyang.
But Seoul's space for diplomatic maneuvering appears to be limited, with Washington wanting its ally to put up a united front and Pyongyang pressuring it to play a role as the principle party promoting the interests of ethnic Koreans -- not as a neutral intermediary.
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