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New sanctions darken outlook for US-North Korea talks

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From left are Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, State Security Minister Jong Kyong-thaek and Pak Kwang-ho, director of the party's propaganda department. Yonhap
From left are Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, State Security Minister Jong Kyong-thaek and Pak Kwang-ho, director of the party's propaganda department. Yonhap

By Lee Min-hyung

The outlook for a second Washington-Pyongyang summit is dimming amid an escalation of diplomatic tit-for-tat, after the U.S. imposed sanctions on three ranking North Korean officials Monday.

The U.S. Treasury Department cited "serious human rights abuse and censorship" as reasons for the sanctions on the North's de facto No. 2 figure, Choe Ryong-hae. The two others are State Security Minister Jong Kyong-thaek and Pak Kwang-ho, director of the Workers' Party's propaganda department.

The decision drew a strong backlash from the North, as this is the first time the U.S. has imposed human rights sanctions against the regime since the leaders of the two countries met in June to discuss peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

The first-ever Washington-Pyongyang summit in Singapore raised hopes to put an end to their decades of hostility. But there has been little sign of progress in their denuclearization talks, so calls have grown for a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take place sometime in the near future.

But the latest decision by the U.S. is expected to cast a more negative outlook for smooth progress in the stalled momentum for talks.

"The sanctions on three North Korean officials are acts of flagrant hostility against the spirit of the Singapore summit between the North and the U.S.," the Rodong Sinmun, the North's propaganda outlet, said Tuesday.

"The ambivalent attitude from the U.S. is drawing criticism, as the country imposed the sanctions even after agreeing to end any hostility and confrontation against the North," it said.

Maeari, another propaganda outlet, also called the U.S. sanctions a "political provocation" against the North.

"The U.S. decision is an unforgivable political provocation, getting in the way of the summits' agreement centering on establishing bilateral trust between Pyongyang and Washington," it said.

Despite the harsh reaction to the sanctions, the U.S. remained firm in its position to continue taking measures on the North's human rights issues.

"The U.S. 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," Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, said in a statement.

The ongoing Washington-Pyongyang dispute came against the backdrop of a recent crack in their bilateral dialogue momentum.

In recent months, the U.S. has pushed for working-level dialogue to arrange a schedule for a possible second summit between Trump and Kim.

Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, was supposed to lead the Washington delegation for dialogue with its northern counterpart headed by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui.

But with the North remaining mum over the working-level talks, both sides have failed to fine-tune the details for the second Trump-Kim summit.

Weakening likelihood for Kim's Seoul visit

The deteriorating Washington-Pyongyang relations are also expected to lessen the likelihood of a possible visit by Kim to Seoul this year.

Expectations were that the North Korean leader would visit as agreed upon with President Moon Jae-in during the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in September.

But with the U.S. and the North declining to "make concessions" for each other over the ongoing denuclearization talks, chances have become slim for Kim to visit in the next couple of weeks.

The North wants the U.S. to take reciprocal measures, such as easing economic sanctions, in exchange for the regime's continued moves for denuclearization. But the U.S. continues to maintain its posture that no sanctions will be lifted unless the North undertakes complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

South Korea is seeking to play a mediating role in getting a resumption of the Washington-Pyongyang dialogue. But the North Korean leader is unlikely to make the high-profile Seoul visit in the near future as he would be pressured to speak on the timeline and roadmap for denuclearization.

Lee Min-hyung

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