WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The chief U.S. envoy for North Korea said on Monday that “diplomacy is still very much alive” with Pyongyang despite a failed summit last month, but cautioned that Washington was closely watching activity at a North Korean rocket site and did not know if it might be planning a new launch.
Stephen Biegun told a conference in Washington that although U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un parted on good terms after their Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi, big gaps remained between the two sides and North Korea needed to show it was fully committed to giving up its nuclear weapons.
Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, stressed that U.S.-led sanctions, which Pyongyang wants dropped, would stay in place until North Korea completed denuclearization. He rejected an incremental approach sought by Pyongyang, and said that easing sanctions for partial steps would amount to subsidizing North Korea’s weapons programs.
As Biegun spoke at the Carnegie Nuclear Conference, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank issued a new report on activity at North Korea’s Sohae rocket launch site, in which satellite images from Friday showed possible preparations for a launch.
In the course of nearly a year of diplomatic engagement with the United States, North Korea has maintained a freeze on missile and nuclear tests and space rocket launches in place since 2017. Trump has repeatedly stressed this as a positive outcome of the diplomacy.
Biegun said Washington did not know what the activity spotted in North Korea meant. He said the Trump administration took it “very seriously” but cautioned against drawing any snap conclusions.
“What Kim Jong Un will ultimately decide to do may very much be his decision and his decision alone,” Biegun said, adding that Trump had made clear last week he would be “very disappointed” if North Korea were to resume testing.
An authoritative U.S. government source familiar with U.S. intelligence assessments said they did not conclude that a launch was imminent, given North Korea’s apparent desire to keep negotiations going with the United States. However, the source said Pyongyang appeared to want to make clear it retained the capability to resume launches at any moment.
“Diplomacy is still very much alive,” Biegun said. He offered no specifics on when new talks might be held and did not say whether any talks had taken place since the summit, which collapsed over differences on U.S. demands for Pyongyang’s denuclearization and North Korea’s demand for sanctions relief.