SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The U.S. and North Korea feel the need to resume diplomacy and are trying to narrow their differences for new summit talks, a top South Korean official said Wednesday as he contrasted their efforts with the tensions surrounding Iran's collapsing nuclear accord.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters in Seoul that the two adversaries need to continue building up trust following the failed talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in February.
"The lesson that the U.S. and North Korea can have from the Hanoi summit is they must not repeat a failure," Kim told The Associated Press and six other news agencies during a roundtable interview on Wednesday.
After fears of war over the North's provocative run of weapons tests in 2017, Washington and Pyongyang held a series of talks including two summits between Trump and Kim. The Hanoi summit broke down due to squabbling over U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea, but the two leaders recently exchanged personal letters in an apparent effort to keep diplomacy alive.
Since the North's entrance to talks with the United States early last year, Kim Jong Un has sent Trump eight letters while Trump wrote him four letters, Kim Yeon-chul said. "The confidence between the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. is being maintained to some extent," he said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said this week that North Korean and U.S. officials are holding "behind-the-scenes talks" to arrange a third summit, though he and Kim Yeon-chul offered no details.
Kim Yeon-chul echoed Moon's position that the resumption of inter-Korean economic projects, currently held by the sanctions imposed over North Korea's nuclear and missile tests, could help induce further denuclearization steps from the North. The projects include the Koreas' jointly run factory park at the North Korean border town of Kaesong and South Korean tourist to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort, which were a rare source of foreign currency for Pyongyang.
"The projects, of course, could be resumed as an outcome of lifted sanctions," he said. "Another way to consider is allowing the projects under exemptions when the process enters the early stage of sanctions relief, as part of a negotiation package to facilitate (disarmament)."
North Korea continued to express its dissatisfaction with South Korea after the Hanoi talks, saying Thursday it will never go through South Korea again in its dealing with the United States. The North's Foreign Ministry also repeated its demand that Washington work out new proposals to revive diplomacy by the end of December.
Kim Yeon-chul's Unification Ministry responded that the South's push for peace on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue remains unchanged.
Trump is keeping observers guessing, too, telling reporters as he departed for the Group of 20 summit in Japan that while he wouldn't be meeting Kim Jong Un at that event, he "may be speaking with him in a different forum." Trump is scheduled to visit South Korea after his stop in Japan.
Hanging over the prospect of future talks with North Korea are the rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Those stem from a decision by the Trump administration last year to withdraw from a landmark 2015 agreement designed to limit Iran's own nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on Tehran, including fresh ones directly targeting the country's revered supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his associates. Those came after tensions increased significantly when Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.
Last month, Iran announced that it was suspending its commitments under the 2015 deal. It imposed a July 7 ultimatum for European countries that are still part of the accord to offer a better deal and long-promised sanctions relief, or Iran will begin enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels.
Kim Yeon-chul said that while both the Iran and North Korea nuclear issues share some things in common, they should not be viewed in the same way because of what he called joint efforts by Washington and Pyongyang to salvage the stalemated nuclear talks.
"Both North Korea and the United States feel some sort of need for negotiations and they are trying to make efforts together to bridge their differences on sticking points. So I wonder we should look at (the two issues) bit differently," he said in response to questions about Iran.
While Trump had been opposed to the Iran accord negotiated under his predecessor Barack Obama, the North Korean nuclear issue "is something that President Trump is trying to make some success" of based on previous experiences, Kim Yeon-chul added.
Moon, a liberal who met Kim three times last year, lobbied hard between Washington and Pyongyang to facilitate diplomacy and find a negotiated resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue.
The unification minister is South Korea's point man for inter-Korean relations.
Before becoming Moon's Unification Minister in April, Kim Yeon-chul was a well-known liberal scholar who expressed passionate support for engagement and economic cooperation with North Korea and skepticism about the usefulness of sanctions. He previously served as the president of the state-sponsored Korea Institute for National Unification and a professor at Inje University in South Korea's Gangwon Province.
Kim Yeon-chul said a nuclear breakthrough could depend on whether North Korea finds meaningful concessions to pair with a verified dismantlement of its primary but aging nuclear complex in Yongbyon. That facility produces plutonium and highly enriched uranium — two main nuclear materials.
North Korea put Yongbyon's dismantling on the table in Hanoi. The Americans rejected that offer as too little to justify major sanctions relief because North Korea's arsenal of an estimated 60-70 nuclear weapons would remain intact and because North Korea is believed to be running multiple secret nuclear facilities.
"Yongbyon still has an important meaning and role (in the process)," Kim Yeon-chul said. "Of course there are other sites. But the closure of Yongbyon would not only cease (the North's) plutonium production but also cut back its production of enriched uranium to a degree, so the meaning wouldn't be small."
Kim also said there are ongoing discussions between the United States and South Korea over inter-Korean economic projects.
During their third summit in Pyongyang last September, Moon and Kim Jong Un pledged to resume operations at the Kaesong complex and restart the Diamond Mountain tours when possible, voicing optimism that the sanctions would end and allow such activities.
Following the collapsed summit in Hanoi, however, North Korea has significantly reduced its engagement and diplomatic activities with South Korea. It has instead made nationalistic calls demanding that Moon break away from Washington and resume economic cooperation between the Koreas.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.