This July 28, 2017, photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows an ICBM at an undisclosed location. Photo: AFP / Shingo Ito and Park Chan-Kyong

Pyongyang is mulling a halt to dialog with the United States and may lift its self-imposed, 15-month moratorium on missile tests, a senior North Korean official told reporters in Pyongyang on Friday.

The surprise statement, following the failure of last month’s North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, comes at a time when the future direction of Pyongyang-Washington relations is uncertain and after satellite imagery revealed new activity at North Korean missile test facilities.

Speaking at a briefing for press and diplomats in Pyongyang, Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hue said, according to Russia’s Tass news agency: “We have no intention to yield to the US demands [put forward at the Hanoi summit] in any form, nor are we willing to engage in negotiations of this kind.”

According to Associated Press, she did not comment directly when asked by an ambassador about news reports that North Korea may be preparing to test launch a missile, but did say: “Whether to maintain this moratorium or not is the decision of our chairman of the state affairs commission.” The latter is the most commonly-used title for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Choe added that Kim will “make his decision in a short period of time.”

Military drills

She also called on the US to take steps mirroring North Korea’s test moratorium. Last year, in order to assist the diplomatic process, joint spring military drills between South Korea and the US were suspended. This year, they have resumed, but on a smaller scale and with minimal publicity.

Tass and AP are two of only a handful of overseas media outlets, that also includes China’s Xinhua and France’s AFP, with bureaus in the North Korean capital. According to AP, reporters were not allowed to ask questions, but diplomats were.

Choe’s comments echoed remarks she had made earlier in a highly unusual midnight press conference, called at short notice in Hanoi after the failure of last month’s North Korea-US summit, in which she said that Kim may be reconsidering his stance on denuclearization talks.

“I [have] a feeling that [Kim] is changing his thought a bit,” toward negotiations with the US, she said then.

In her comments on Friday, Choe also lambasted US National Security Advisor John Bolton and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

She also said that in Hanoi, Pompeo and John Bolton “created the atmosphere of hostility and mistrust and, therefore, obstructed the constructive effort for negotiations between the supreme leaders of North Korea and the United States.”

Bolton is widely seen as the most hawkish of Trump’s advisors, while former CIA chief Pompeo, in his talks with his opposite number, ex-espionage General Kim Yong Chul last year, failed to reach any agreement on the road map to denuclearize North Korea.

Bolton and Pompeo are reported to have offered the North Korean delegation a surprise yellow envelope in Hanoi containing details of US intelligence on a wide range of nuclear facilities in North Korea.

Enriched uranium

The North Korean delegation had offered to denuclearize their flagship nuclear facility at Yongbyon, but not others. While it is well established that Yongbyon processes plutonium, the locations of the North’s parallel, and much more secretive, highly enriched uranium program are uncertain.

Analysts are unsure whether it was the US demand for a deal on “Yongbyon + alpha” – a wider range of facilities than Yongbyon alone, which almost certainly include HEU assets – that was the reason for the breakdown of the summit.

However, they have noted a possible gap in the US position between pre-summit statements by US Special Envoy Stephen Biegun – which indicated a more phased closure of nuclear facilities, to be followed by action on weapons – and the demands the US delegation made in Hanoi, which have been characterized as an “all or nothing” stance.

Trump noted, in his post-summit press conference, that he could have made a deal in Hanoi, but decided to “walk,” given the North Koreans demanded that all sanctions be lifted. The North Korean delegation later clarified that it was not all sanctions, but sanctions imposed since 2016. However, these are widely seen as the most stringent sanctions, indicating that Trump was not exaggerating much in his press conference.

Alleging the US had “thrown away a golden opportunity” in Hanoi, Choe also said the US delegation “were too busy with pursuing their own political interests and had no sincere intention to achieve a result.”

This may refer to the multiple domestic political problems now besieging the Trump administration. The testimony of Trump’s estranged ex-lawyer Michael Cohen took place on the same day as the summit.

However, she did hold out some hope.

Despite castigating Bolton and Pompeo, she noted that Trump – who during his Hanoi press conference called Kim “quite a guy” – and his North Korean counterpart continued to get along. “Personal relations between the two supreme leaders are still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful,” Choe said.

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