Kim Jong Un is engaged in North Korea's busiest-ever year of missile tests. Photo: AFP/KCTV

Long-delayed and highly anticipated North Korea-US denuclearization talks apparently broke down in Sweden late on Saturday.

And on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to promote a “long-term, sound and stable” relationship with North Korea, state news agency Xinhua said, as the two countries mark 70 years of diplomatic relations.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also sent a message to Xi saying their countries’ “invincible friendship will be immortal on the road of accomplishing the cause of socialism,” Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA said, according to AFP.

In Stockholm on Saturday, in a repeat of the February Hanoi summit, where the North Korean delegation held a surprise late-night press conference to blame the US side for the failure to achieve a deal, chief delegate Kim Myong Gil blamed the Americans during an impromptu media briefing outside the North Korean Embassy.

Stating that the US negotiators would not “give up their old viewpoint and attitude,” Kim said, according to newswires in Stockholm, “The negotiations have not fulfilled our expectations and finally broke off.”

The outcome had “dampened our enthusiasm for negotiations by bringing nothing to the negotiation table,” Kim said, with the result that North Korea now stood “at the crossroads of dialogue or confrontation.”

The outcome was unexpected as Kim had, in comments made at Beijing airport en route to Sweden, expressed optimism, saying, “As the US side sent a new signal, I bear high expectations and optimism, and I am also optimistic about the results.”

‘Oh yes they did!’ ‘Oh no they didn’t!’

As is virtually par for the course with North Korea-US negotiations, the Americans disagreed.

US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus, in a message carried on the department’s website, said the “early comments from the [North Korea] delegation do  not reflect the content or spirit of today’s eight-and-a-half-hour discussion. The US brought creative ideas and had good discussions.”

He said the US had “previewed a number of new initiatives.” He also made clear that the US was prepared to return to the table.

“At the conclusion of our discussions, the United States proposed to accept the invitation of our Swedish hosts to return to Stockholm to meet again in two weeks’ time, in order to continue discussions on all of the topics,” the statement read. “The United States delegation has accepted this invitation.”

It is, as yet, unclear whether the North Korean side will agree to join those talks.

Saturday’s negotiations were held amid conditions of high confidentiality and tight security at Villa Elfvik, an isolated conference center on the island of Lidingo on the outskirts of Stockholm, according to Reuters. They were also the first held between the two sides since the failure of the Hanoi summit.

Sweden is a low-key but important diplomatic enabler of North Korea-US contact, as its embassy represents US interests in Pyongyang. The US does not have diplomatic relations with  North Korea.

Murky outlook

There had been widespread anticipation that the departure from the Donald Trump administration of hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who had been blamed by many pundits for the failure of the Hanoi summit, could clear the air between the two sides.

Still, even the US State Department’s more upbeat assessment recognized the difficulty of the task. “The United States and the DPRK will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean Peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” it read.

There are both rumors and expectations, following comments from President Trump, of a third summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Both leaders have emphasized the personal, amicable bond between them, but absent agenda-setting discussions prior to any summit, it is unclear what can realistically be achieved, however committed the two leaders are to any deal.

Dan Pinkston, an international-relations expert at Troy University in the US, who had been skeptical about any positive outcome from talks because of the lack of sustained dialogue, also cast doubts on North Korean commitment.

Given the “ideas and concepts and perceptions and worldview and ideology and motivations that drives the behavior” of the North Korean elite, Pinkston told Asia Times, “When you look at those things, there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they have changed and that they would disarm.”

The North Korea issue shifts over to the UN Security Council this coming week, where France, Germany and the UK have requested closed-door talks on Pyongyang’s missile development program. Last Wednesday, North Korea test-fired what it claims was a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

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