- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2019

U.S. negotiators will push their North Korean counterparts for concrete steps toward denuclearization in exchange for limited counter steps by Washington when the two sides meet this weekend for their first working-level talks since February’s failed Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korean officials revealed Tuesday morning in a brief notice in the state official press that the lower-level discussions will resume after a seven-month break, a meeting confirmed shortly afterward by a State Department spokeswoman.

With the Hanoi talks having collapsed over Mr. Kim’s demand that U.S. deliver sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a partial dismantling of his nuclear arsenal, analysts say the U.S. side is likely to embrace a “step-by-step” approach to negotiations and see what the North Korean side brings to the table.

“The question now is, Will both sides be able to offer the right mix of concessions that the other side finds appealing to strike a bargain?” said Harry Kazianis, the head of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest.

The optimism sparked by the announcement was tempered by reports early Wednesday from South Korea that the North Korean military had fired at least one projectile off its eastern coast, in what appeared to be a demonstration of its expanding military capabilities ahead the coming talks.

Despite a string of sharp statements and weapons tests by the North this year, Mr. Trump dispatched special North Korean envoy Stephen Biegun to the region in late August to seek new talks with the North Koreans by extending an invitation to them during a visit to South Korea.

While there was no public response from Pyongyang, speculation swirled about back-channel discussions between the two sides at last week’s U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York.

North Korean First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui said Tuesday that she and other North Korean officials will have preliminary contacts with Mr. Biegun’s team this Friday, before holding working-level talks on Saturday. No site for the talks was identified.

The government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, long a proponent of detente with the North, praised the resumption of direct negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

“We hope the sides will make practical progress at the upcoming working-level negotiations for complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of lasting peace,” a government spokeswoman told reporters in Seoul.

The North Koreans praised a speech by President Trump two weeks ago suggesting that his administration may be ready to take a softer posture toward negotiations. The talks will also be the first to take place since the ouster of hawkish National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, a longtime skeptic of the negotiations who this week again publicly questioned whether Mr. Kim will ever give up his nuclear arsenal.

In a Sept. 17 speech, the president said Mr. Bolton’s rhetoric while in office had “set us back very badly,” and that “maybe a new method would be very good” in future negotiations with North Korea.

Mr. Trump’s domestic political difficulties and the looming 2020 presidential race may have factored in the decision to resume talks, said Patrick Cronin the Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington. Mr. Kim “has got to be thinking that Trump is moving toward a moment of peak need in terms of needing a win on foreign policy,” Mr. Cronin said. “Kim may be wanting to cash in on that.”

“But we’ll see,” Mr. Cronin said in an interview Tuesday. “I think there’s a possibility Kim will be willing to accept less from the U.S. than he asked for in Hanoi, but that’s not saying much. So we’re going to have to see if these upcoming talks yield anything.”

Mr. Kazianis said the calendar raises the stakes for both sides to make progress beyond the leaders’ photo ops.

“America and North Korea have perhaps one last chance through these new working-level talks to find a compromise that works for both,” he said in comments remarks circulated to reporters.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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