North Korea and the US have agreed to resume nuclear negotiations this weekend following a months-long stalemate over the withdrawal of sanctions in exchange for disarmament, a senior North Korean diplomat said.
Choe Son Hui, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, said the two nations will have preliminary contact on Friday before holding working-level talks on Saturday.
In a statement released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, Mr Choe expressed optimism over the outcome of the meeting but did not say where it would take place.
“It is my expectation that the working-level negotiations would accelerate the positive development of the DPRK-US relations,” Mr Choe said, using an abbreviation for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, who is travelling with secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Rome, said: “I can confirm that US and DPRK officials plan to meet within the next week. I do not have further details to share on the meeting.”
Nuclear negotiations have been at a standstill for months after a February summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Those talks broke down after the US rejected North Korean demands for broad sanctions relief in exchange for partially surrendering its nuclear capabilities.
Pyongyang followed the summit with belligerent rhetoric and a slew of short-range weapons tests that were widely seen as an attempt to gain leverage ahead of a possible resumption of negotiations.
Mr Choe’s announcement came after North Korea praised Mr Trump last month for suggesting Washington may pursue an unspecified “new method” in nuclear negotiations with the North.
North Korea also welcomed Mr Trump’s decision to fire hawkish former national security adviser John Bolton, who advocated a “Libya model” of unilateral denuclearisation as a template for North Korea.
The 2004 disarmament of Libya is seen by Pyongyang as a deeply provocative comparison because Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed following US-supported military action in his country seven years after giving up a rudimentary nuclear programme that was far less advanced than North Korea’s.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who lobbied hard to set up the first summit between Mr Kim and Mr Trump last year in Singapore, welcomed the announcement and expressed hope that the resumed talks would result in “substantial progress” in denuclearisation and stabilisation of peace.
Under the high-stakes diplomacy between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, which has been driven chiefly by the personalities of the leaders rather than an established diplomatic process, working-level meetings have been useful for fleshing out the logistics of summits but unproductive in hammering out the details of a nuclear deal that has eluded the countries for decades.
The stalemate has revealed fundamental differences between the two sides. North Korea says it will never unilaterally surrender its nuclear weapons and missiles and insists that US-led sanctions should be lifted first before any progress in negotiations.
The Trump administration has vowed to maintain robust economic pressure until the North takes real steps towards fully and verifiably relinquishing its nuclear programme.
There are doubts about whether Mr Kim would ever voluntarily deal away an arsenal that he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival.
In his first public appearance since his departure from the White House, Mr Bolton on Monday gave a characteristically pessimistic outlook on the prospects for nuclear negotiations with the North and challenged Mr Trump’s foreign policy without directly mentioning the president.
At a forum in Washington hosted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Mr Bolton said the North Korean leader has made a “strategic decision” to do whatever he can to keep his country’s nuclear weapons and that is an “unacceptable” threat to the world.