North Korea says peace with US possible, but only if hostility ends
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North Korea says peace with US possible, but only if hostility ends

Foreign minister tells UN meeting Pyongyang willing to fulfill Singapore agreement and dismantle nuclear program, but Washington’s only response has been to increase sanctions

File: The 73rd United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2018, at the United Nations in New York. (AFP/Don Emmert)
File: The 73rd United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2018, at the United Nations in New York. (AFP/Don Emmert)

UNITED NATIONS — Calling for more trust, North Korea’s foreign minister urged the United States on Saturday to keep moving past what he called seven decades of entrenched hostility if Washington wants to restart stalled negotiations meant to rid Pyongyang of its nuclear bombs.

Boiling the rivals’ diplomatic standoff down to the North’s deepening feeling of mistrust, Ri Yong Ho sought to lay out a vision of peace on the troubled Korean Peninsula — provided the North gets what it wants from the United States.

Ri, standing at a podium at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, said North Korea is ready to implement the points that his leader, Kim Jong Un, and US President Donald Trump agreed to in June during a summit in Singapore.

But his comments were infused with what came across as impatience at the slow pace of progress in a process the world hopes will cause Pyongyang to abandon an arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that aims to accurately target the entire US mainland.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho addresses the 73rd United Nations General Assembly on September 29, 2018, at the United Nations in New York. (AFP/ Don EMMERT)

In recent weeks, Kim Jong Un has said he would permanently dismantle North Korea’s main nuclear complex, but only if the United States takes unspecified corresponding measures. Kim has also promised to accept international inspectors to monitor the closing of a key missile test site and launch pad.

The North, however, doesn’t “see any corresponding response” from Washington. On the contrary, Ri said, the United States is increasing pressure and sanctions.

“The perception that sanctions can bring us on our knees is a pipe dream of the people who are ignorant of us,” Ri said, adding that the continued sanctions are “deepening our mistrust” and deadlocking the current diplomacy.

“Without any trust in the US, there will be no confidence in our national security,” he said, “and under such circumstances there is no way we will unilaterally disarm ourselves first.”

There was no immediate response from Washington. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week he would return to Pyongyang to set up a sequel to the Singapore meeting between Kim and Trump.

Despite the muscular tone, Ri’s high-profile speech was downright mild and balanced compared to the florid vows of nuclear strikes and claims of US perfidiousness that have been typical fare from the country’s propaganda services.

This was decidedly so during an exchange of threats between Washington and Pyongyang that accompanied a run of increasingly powerful weapons tests last year that put the North on the brink of its claim to be a full-fledged nuclear power, and had some fearing war.

This November 29, 2017, image provided by the North Korean government on Thursday, November 30, 2017, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, third from left, and what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

The tenor of Ri’s comments was clearly meant to push a wary United States to agree to a declaration formally ending the Korean War, which ended with a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.

Washington is wary of endorsing such a declaration, which could lead to a formal peace treaty. Pyongyang demands the removal of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South to deter North Korean military adventurism. The United States wants the North first to provide a full account of the components of its nuclear program.

Although not legally binding, the North might also see an end-of-war declaration as a way to create political momentum that would steer discussions toward diplomatic recognition, economic benefits and security concessions.

Once the Singapore agreements are implemented, the “current trend toward detente will turn into durable peace and the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will also be achieved,” Ri said. “The Korean Peninsula, the hottest spot in the globe, will become the cradle of peace and prosperity.”

This image made from video released by KRT on June 14, 2018, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiling at the media as he shakes hands with US President Donald Trump while his sister Kim Yo Jong, left, looks on during a summit in Singapore, June 12, 2018. (KRT via AP Video)

After their summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim issued a vague statement about a nuclear-free peninsula without describing when and how it would occur. Post-summit nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang were rocky and quickly settled into a stalemate. There is widespread skepticism that Pyongyang is serious about renouncing an arsenal that it likely sees as the only way to guarantee its safety.

Part of that skepticism is based on a bitter history of nuclear negotiations breaking down in mutual recrimination. But there’s also stronger evidence for this wariness: Recent satellite photos have indicated Kim’s weapons factories were still operating to produce fissile materials to make nuclear weapons.

The doubt is always present on a peninsula so used to threat and bloodshed. What’s different now is that it seems to be suffused with a tentative but unmistakable hope.

“Over the past year something miraculous has taken place on the Korean Peninsula,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in, seen as the force behind the recent summitry, said earlier at the UN “We have crossed the barriers of division and are tearing down the walls in our heart.”

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