North Korea Casts Fresh Doubt on Talks as Trump Envoy Visits

Jihye Lee

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea said it wouldn’t talk under “military threats,” raising new doubts about U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to restart stalled nuclear negotiations.

North Korea’s foreign ministry denounced joint U.S.-South Korean military drills and the introduction of “cutting-edge lethal equipment” such as F-35A fighter jets as a “grave provocation.” “Escalating hostile military moves by the United States and the South Korean authorities are reducing the dynamics of dialogue for building a lasting and durable peace on the Korean Peninsula,” the ministry said Thursday, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The statement came during a visit to Seoul by the U.S.’s top nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, suggesting it was unlikely that he might meet with North Korea officials. The two sides haven’t met since Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised to restart working-level talks in “two to three weeks” during their unprecedented June 30 meeting at the Demilitarized Zone.

Kim has resumed ballistic missile launches in recent months and has given the Trump administration until the end of the year to make a better offer on sanctions relief. Trump has said that he doesn’t think tests of short-range missiles should jeopardize the talks the leaders began in Singapore last year, but North Korea has hinted at the possibility of more significant provocations.

Trump said earlier this month that Kim sent him a letter offering “a small apology” for the missile tests and expressed a willingness to resume talks after joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises were over. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Tuesday urged Kim to return to talks in an interview with CBS, saying that it would “be better for the North Korean people” and the world.

“President Trump gave me and my team the assignment to restart working on level negotiations with North Korea, as agreed by Chairman Kim, to successfully implement the four commitments the two leaders made in Singapore,” Biegun said Wednesday, after meeting with South Korean counterpart, Lee Do-hoon. “I am fully committed to this important mission, and we will get this done.”

North Korea reiterated its threat to escalate Thursday, saying that U.S.-South Korean conduct “compels us to weigh a realistic way of turning our attention more to strengthening the physical deterrence.” While the allies concluded their largely computerized exercises Tuesday, the Yonhap News Agency reported earlier this week that South Korea would soon accept delivery of four more advanced F-35A fighters.

The North Korean statement also cited the U.S.’s first test of a ground-launched cruise missile Sunday and its decision to sell F-16V fighter jets to Taiwan as other moves it considered hostile.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox News on Wednesday that his “biggest concern” was tests of long-range weapons and that he didn’t think the administration was encouraging Kim to launch shorter-range weapons. “I think you need to take a look at the bigger picture,” he said.

--With assistance from Glen Carey.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh

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