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(News Focus) N. Korea's toned-down criticism signals willingness for talks: experts

North Korea 15:16 December 06, 2019

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- A recent series of statements from North Korea appear intended to warn the United States against making further provocative remarks, but Pyongyang apparently toned its criticism down, signaling a willingness to keep nuclear negotiations alive, experts said Friday.

On Thursday, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui issued a statement, warning that Pyongyang could resume a war of words with Washington if it continues to make provocative remarks and insult its leader Kim Jong-un.

The warning came in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's remarks earlier this week during a NATO summit in Britain that he could use force against Pyongyang, if necessary, calling Kim "Rocket Man," a nickname he coined during the exchange of war threats between the two countries years ago.

"It would be fortunate if the utterances of the use of military force and the title of figurative style made by President Trump were an instantaneous verbal lapse, but matter becomes different if they were a planned provocation that deliberately targeted us," Choe said, according to the Korean Central News Agency in English.

"If such phrases emerge once again and they are once again confirmed to be a calculated provocation of the U.S. against us, we will also start harsh language against the U.S. to counter it," she said.

The warning of "harsh language" contrasts sharply with the usually strong way the North has reacted to any perceived attempts to ridicule or insult its leader.

When former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Kim a dictator and tyrant, the North's official news agency vowed the country "will never pardon anyone who dare provoke the supreme leadership of the DPRK but will certainly make them pay for it."

North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui arrives at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport on Nov. 23, 2019, to return home following her six-day trip to Russia, in this file photo. (Yonhap)

A day earlier, Pak Jong-chon, chief of the General Staff of the North Korean People's Army, issued a relatively stronger statement, saying that Pyongyang will take "prompt corresponding action at any level" if the U.S. uses force against the North.

He, however, emphasized that Kim and Trump are still maintaining close relations that he said is deterring any physical conflict from taking place.

Experts saw this week's statements carry tough words and warnings against provocations but appear to be well coordinated not to go as far as to jeopardize the whole negotiation process.

"The latest statements appear to contain a warning against the U.S. not to threaten its regime security and the dignity of its leader, but they did not have harsh words directly targeted at Trump," Yang Moo-jin, a senior expert at the University of North Korean Studies, said.

"To be sure, there is a warning message there, but they seem to be toned-down in order to demonstrate its willingness to wait until the end of the year based on mutual trust between the leaders of the two countries," he added.

Nuclear talks have been stalled since the summit between Kim and Trump in February broke down in February as they remained far apart over how to match Pyongyang's denuclearization steps with Washington's sanctions relief and other concessions.

In April, leader Kim demanded Washington come up with acceptable proposals in their denuclearization negotiations before the end of this year. He said that he could take a "new way" if Washington fails to do so.

With its self-imposed deadline coming closer, North Korea has issued a series of strong-worded statements in the names of former and current nuclear negotiators and high-ranking officials to urge Washington to drop all hostile acts and take first action to move talks forward again.

What is noteworthy is that most of the recent statements have been issued at night here to target American audiences early in the morning across the Pacific. They have also been mostly published through the official Korean Central News Agency, a major news outlet closely being monitored by the outside world.

They, however, have not been carried out by other media outlets, including the Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the North's ruling party and a major news provider for its own people.

The paper has, instead, highlighted Kim's recent trip to Mount Paekdu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula considered the birthplace of his late father, and the importance of "self reliance" and fighting against imperialists.

This photo, released by the Korean Central News Agency on Dec. 4, 2019, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C), alongside the North's senior officials, riding a white horse up a snow-covered Mount Paektu, a volcano on the North Korean-Chinese border. Kim looked around revolutionary battle sites on the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, considered sacred by Koreans. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

This comes in stark contrast with years ago when the North was locked in a war of words with the U.S., issuing statements full of insults and threats, and the newspaper carried almost all of them, a move seen as intended to rally public support against Washington.

Experts said that issuing those statements through the KCNA but not through the newspaper means that the North might be thinking that it is too early to disclose the latest tense situations with Washington in the hope that there could be a last-minute breakthrough before the end of this year.

"It appears that those statements are not for the North's domestic audience but aimed at pressuring Washington ahead of the year-end deadline," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University. "Ironically, this could be understood as a move to express its active intent to keep talks alive."


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