North Korea demands sanctions relief before any nuclear concessions

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is undermining the prospects for successful negotiations to dismantle North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program, a regime diplomat alleged Saturday.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho denounced U.S. calls for the world to maintain sanctions pressure — a mainstay of Pompeo’s diplomacy — as being inconsistent with President Trump’s position on the talks. Likewise, he maintained that the U.S. hasn’t responded appropriately to North Korea's “moratorium on nuclear tests and rocket launch tests” and apparent step to dismantle a missile factory.

“The United States, instead of responding to these measures, is raising its voice louder for maintaining the sanctions against [North Korea] and showing the attitude to retreat even from declaring the end of the war, a very basic and primary step for providing peace on the Korean peninsula,” Ri said at the ASEAN Regional Forum, per Channel News Asia.

Ri uncorked that rebuke shortly after a friendly public handshake with Pompeo, who had attended the forum but departed for Indonesia.

“There are many productive conversations to be had,” Ri replied when the top U.S. diplomat suggested the two should meet, per the Washington Post. Another U.S. diplomat then “approached Ri and handed him a white envelope bearing a letter” for Kim from President Trump. In his ensuing speech, though, Ri implied that Pompeo is out of step with Trump’s pledges at the June 12 summit with Kim. "What is alarming however is the insistent moves manifested within the U.S. to go back to the old, far from its leader's intention,” he said.

That speech came one day after the Treasury Department blacklisted a Russian bank for helping North Korea circumvent international financial sanctions. Trump’s administration has insisted on maintaining international sanctions in order to avoid a scenario in which North Korea gains sanctions relief and then breaks its promises, as has happened in past talks.

“The sanctions must remain in place until we’re done . . . no matter how much progress we make along the way,” he said during a Friday interview. “There will surely be things along the way that take place. We’ve already had meetings. We are engaged in things which will improve the trust between our two countries. Those all make sense. But with respect to sanctions, the UN has spoken; the world has spoken.”

U.S. officials have struggled to maintain that sanctions pressure, however. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. representative at the UN, argued that North Korea has provoked a total oil embargo by violating a UN-mandated cap on oil imports. But Russia and China, which have continued to sell oil to the regime throughout the year, put a hold on the embargo.

U.N. investigators have corroborated Haley’s case that the regime is violating sanctions. “[North Korea] has not stopped its nuclear and missile programs and continued to defy Security Council resolutions through a massive increase in illicit ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products, as well as through transfers of coal at sea during 2018,” they wrote in a confidential U.N. assessment shown to reporters on Friday, per Reuters.

Ri was unapologetic about the continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. “It is essential for both sides to take simultaneous actions and phased steps to do what is possible one after another,” he said Saturday. “Only when the U.S. ensures that we feel comfortable with and come close to it, will we be able to open our minds to the U.S. and show it inaction.”

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