SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Thursday it will never unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons unless the United States removes its nuclear threat first, a bombshell statement that could rattle the fragile diplomacy between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang.
The statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency came amid a deadlock in nuclear negotiations between the United States and North Korea over the sequencing of the denuclearization process and removal of international sanctions.
It raises further doubts on whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will ever voluntarily relinquish an arsenal he may see as a stronger guarantee of survival than whatever security assurances the United States could provide. It also suggests that North Korea will demand the United States withdraw or significantly reduce the 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea, which would be a major sticking point to a potential disarmament deal.
Kim and President Donald Trump met June 12 in Singapore where they issued a vague goal for the "complete denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula without describing when and how it would occur.
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But North Korea for decades has been pushing a concept of denuclearization that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to pursue nuclear development until the United States removes its troops and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan. In Thursday's statement, the North made clear it's sticking to its traditional stance on denuclearization. It accused Washington of misleading what had been agreed on in Singapore and driving the post-summit talks into an impasse.
"The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography," the statement said.
"When we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of (South Korea) where the United States has placed its invasive force, including nuclear weapons. When we talk about the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula," the statement said.
The United States removed its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s. Washington and Seoul did not immediately respond to the North Korean statement.
North Korea's reiteration of its long-standing position on denuclearization could prove to be a major setback for diplomacy, which was revived early this year following a series of provocative nuclear and missile tests that left Kim and Trump spending most of 2017 exchanging bizarre insults and war threats. The statement could jeopardize Trump's plan to hold a second summit with Kim early next year as it would be difficult for the United States to push negotiations further if the North ties the future of its nukes with the U.S. military presence in the South, analysts said.
The statement also worsens credibility problems South Korea's liberal government faces over its claim that Kim is genuinely interested in negotiating away his nuclear weapons. South Korea, which lobbied hard for the Trump-Kim meeting, has tried to create an impression that things are moving toward the North's denuclearization, with President Moon Jae-in saying that Kim hasn't asked for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula as a precondition for abandoning his nuclear weapons.
However, Kim, who met Moon three times this year in a diplomatic push, has never made such comment in public.
"The blunt statement could be an indicator that the North has no intentions to return to the negotiation table anytime soon," said Shin Beomchul, a senior analyst at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "It's clear that the North intends to keep its nukes and turn the diplomatic process into a bilateral arms reduction negotiation with the United States, rather than a process where it unilaterally surrenders its program."
The nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang stalled since the Trump-Kim meeting. The United States wants North Korea to provide a detailed account of nuclear and missile facilities that would be inspected and dismantled under a potential deal, while the North is insisting that sanctions be lifted first.
The North Korean statement came a day after Stephen Biegun, the Trump's administration's special envoy on North Korea, told reporters in South Korea that Washington was reviewing easing travel restrictions on North Korea to facilitate humanitarian shipments to help resolve the impasse in nuclear negotiations.