- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2018

North Korea threatened Sunday to kill any progress toward denuclearization if the Trump administration continues to increase sanctions pressure and criticize human rights abuses by leader Kim Jong-un’s regime.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a biting statement days after the administration leveled human rights-related sanctions against officials close to Mr. Kim. It warned that further such actions by Washington would “block the path to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula forever — a result desired by no one.”

The statement, aired by the official Korean Central News Agency, claimed that U.S. officials are falling victim to their “greatest miscalculation” if they believe they can force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program by ratcheting up human rights pressure.

While there was no immediate reaction from the White House, the statement underscored Pyongyang’s rising frustration over the Trump administration’s decision in recent days to ramp up previously sidelined human rights concerns against a backdrop of stalled denuclearization talks.

Sunday’s developments came as North Korea marked the seventh anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong-il with visits to statues and vows of loyalty to his son and successor, Kim Jong-un.

The Associated Press reported that a light snow fell in central Pyongyang as tens of thousands offered flowers and paid respects to the late leader at Mansu Hill, the location of huge bronze statues of the “Dear Leader” and national founder Kim Il-sung.

The death of Kim Jong-il on Dec. 17, 2011, thrust Kim Jong-un — then in his late-20s and a virtually unknown figure outside North Korea — into power. Analysts say the younger Kim’s emergence on the global stage has been bolstered by his willingness over the past year to partake in peace talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and denuclearization talks with President Trump.

Uncertainty over the talks, however, has risen in recent months amid ongoing sanctions pressure from Washington — pressure that repeatedly has triggered angry rhetoric from Pyongyang.

North Korea’s state media lashed out with a blistering commentary last Tuesday after the Trump administration leveled sanctions against three top officials in the Kim regime over their alleged involvement in human rights abuses.

The Trump administration had faced criticism in recent months for leaving the rights issue off the table in the diplomatic push with Pyongyang, but the Treasury Department announced sanctions Monday against top Kim advisers Jong Kyong-thaek, Choe Ryong-hae and Pak Kwang-ho.

Mr. Jong is minister of state security, Mr. Choe heads the Organization and Guidance Department and Mr. Pak is director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

“The United States has consistently condemned the North Korean regime for its flagrant and egregious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and this Administration will continue to take action against human rights abusers around the globe,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement on issuing the sanctions.

It remains to be seen how the development will fully impact the denuclearization diplomacy. Administration officials have said for months that they are pushing for a second Trump-Kim summit, although Mr. Trump suggested Friday that momentum for the summit is lacking.

“Many people have asked how we are doing in our negotiations with North Korea,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “I always reply by saying we are in no hurry.”

The president also said: “We are doing just fine!”

There remains “wonderful potential for great economic success” for North Korea, Mr. Trump tweeted, adding that Mr. Kim “sees it better than anyone and will fully take advantage of it for his people.”

Sunday’s statement from Pyongyang similarly steered clear of directly criticizing Mr. Trump. Instead, according to a Reuters report, the statement credited the president for his “willingness” to improve relations with the North, even as it accused the State Department of being “bent” on bringing relations “back to the status of last year which was marked by exchanges of fire.”

The statement lamented that Washington has taken “sanctions measures for as many as eight times against the companies, individuals and ships of not only the [North Korea] but also Russia, China and other[s].”

The latest sanctions were announced weeks after a high-stakes meeting between North Korean officials and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was abruptly canceled. The meeting has yet to be rescheduled.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Biegun reportedly is slated to visit South Korea in the coming days to strategize with officials there on ways to salvage the denuclearization negotiations with the North.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Sunday that Mr. Biegun will meet his South Korean counterpart, Special Representative Lee Do-hoon, for a second face-to-face meeting of a joint working group on North Korea that Seoul and Washington established last month.

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