Read: Trump is running out of time to denuclearize North Korea
The setting was, relative to the atmosphere surrounding Trump’s summits with Kim, dull by design—a location “meant to avoid symbolism and distraction so the teams can focus on the content of negotiations,” Leif-Eric Easley, a Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, explained as the proceedings got under way.
Yet the talks also seemed set up to fail. For months, North Korean officials delayed restarting these lower-level discussions, placing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the humiliating position of repeatedly promising that negotiations would resume in “a couple of weeks.” And when the North Koreans finally agreed to them, they announced that the talks would last only one day. Soon afterward, Kim’s government announced the successful test of a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, capping a spate of shorter-range-missile tests that has significantly advanced its nuclear-weapons arsenal.
And fail they did, at least for the moment. In a statement read shortly after the negotiations ended within hours of beginning—so shortly after, in fact, it raised suspicions that this was Pyongyang’s plan all along—the chief North Korean negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, blamed the “breakdown” on his U.S. counterparts not coming to the table with fresh ideas, and suggested that talks be suspended until the end of the year, a period that North Korean officials have ominously described as a deadline for Washington to adopt a more flexible position.
Read: The day denuclearization died
U.S. negotiators tried to cast the impasse in the best light, stating that they’d raised “new initiatives” and describing the discussions as “good.” They noted that the United States and North Korea “will not overcome a legacy of 70 years of war and hostility on the Korean peninsula through the course of a single Saturday,” and that they sought “more intensive engagement” and another meeting in the optimistic Pompeoian time frame of a couple of weeks.
The North Korean delegation, however, appeared unwilling to enter into a substantive and structured diplomatic process, let alone technical conversations about dismantling the country’s nuclear program. Instead of presenting themselves as the empowered negotiators U.S. officials had hoped to finally confront after previous rounds of abortive working-level nuclear talks, the North Koreans seemed to once again be primarily in listening mode.
“Rather than the breakdown of talks, what we are seeing resembles classic North Korean negotiating tactics: demand more concessions, minimize denuclearization commitments, and figure out how to cheat,” Easley told me by email. “Kim Myong Gil does not have authority to compromise on anything until approved by Kim Jong Un. He probably went to Stockholm with talking points and instructions to receive the updated U.S. position before walking out to buy time and apply pressure.”