Thu, 09 Apr 2020

President Donald Trump's attempt to reengage North Korea through "anti-epidemic" help offered through a letter sent to the country's leader Kim Jong Un is an effort to show the U.S. remains open to dialogue even amid the coronavirus pandemic, experts said.

"The main point here is that the U.S. continues to send signals that reinforce a posture of openness to dialogue with North Korea," said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

"We continue to say that the door is open in various ways, and the coronavirus response is one specific area where both countries could begin engagement with each other if they decide to do so," Snyder continued.

Trump sent a personal letter to the regime's leader, according to a statement by his sister Kim Yo Jong, issued through the country's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sunday.

She welcomed the letter as "a good judgment and proper action for the U.S. president to make efforts to keep the good relations" with the country's leader at a time when "big difficulties and challenges lie in the way of developing the bilateral relations."

She said Trump offered help in "anti-epidemic work," conveying that he values his relations with Kim.

But she said it is not good to make a "hasty conclusion" that a close relation between Trump and Kim could lead to a change in relations between the two countries.

Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since October when the working-level talks held in Stockholm fell through as neither side relented on its position.

Washington has been seeking Pyongyang to fully denuclearize, but Pyongyang has been demanding the U.S. relax sanctions as a precondition for denuclearization.

Trump confirmed that he sent a letter to Kim to help the regime fight the coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China, and spread into a global pandemic.

"North Korea, Iran, and others, we are open for helping other countries," said Trump on Sunday.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, "I think it's important to keep lines of authoritative communication open, regardless of what the policy is."

North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases of the virus. But it has been taking extreme measures to prevent the virus from making inroads. Pyongyang quarantined thousands of people before releasing almost 2,600 on Friday, according to the KCNA, fueling speculation there could be a possibility of an outbreak in the country that shares a porous border with China.

On Monday, the regime ordered "every citizen [to] obey the leadership and control of the central and regional emergency quarantine centers of all levels in an unconditional and absolute manner" according to the Rodong Sinmun, the country's official newspaper.

Snyder said the letter Trump sent to Kim shows that "the U.S. is still going to be dealing with the rest of the world even while this coronavirus response is occurring."

He continued, "It is pretty clear that President Trump does not have the luxury of focusing only on the coronavirus response. There will be other issues that require his attention."

Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Trump's outreach to Kim shows that Trump is "still coping with international issues" and "not totally bogged down with a domestic response to the coronavirus."

At the same time, according to Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at the CNA, Trump wants to maintain a cordial relationship with Kim to prevent North Korea from escalating threats by testing a long-range missile.

"President Trump's view is that as long as he can keep the relationship warm between him and Kim Jong Un, he can keep Kim from going up too far up the escalatory ladder to [begin] ICBM tests and nuclear tests," Gause said.

North Korea tested what it called "tactical guided weapons" Saturday. It was the third missile test Pyongyang conducted this year in an apparent effort to fine-tune its missile technology.

North Korea Launches More Ballistic Missiles, Even During Pandemic Pyongyang launched two 'short-range ballistic missiles,' Seoul says

Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in the Obama administration, said North Korea announced it received Trump's letter a day after it tested missiles because it views the letter and the tests as unrelated.

"Kim Jong Un doesn't see any inconsistency between a friendly letter from Trump, which of course, Kim Jong Un's sister praised, and conducting short-range missile tests," Samore said.

"They are completely unrelated because, from Kim Jong Un's standpoint, he feels free to conduct short-range missile tests at any time without breaking any agreement that he has with Trump. So I think the message from Kim is that he's going to proceed independently with short-range missile tests regardless of the state of relations with the United States," Samore continued.

Trump has said any short-range missile tests North Korea conducts are not in violation of an agreement the two leaders made at the Singapore Summit in June 2018.

Fitzpatrick said North Korea's response to the letter shows that its position is still locked on demanding the U.S. concession of sanctions relief.

"The response from Kim Jong Un's sister was, in so many words, a rejection ... [suggesting] that 'Your words have to be backed by real change in U.S. policy,'" Fitzpatrick said. "North Korea wants sanctions relief, not a vague offer of assistance."

Christy Lee contributed to this report from VOA Korean.

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