UPDATE : 2019.12.13 FRI 09:50
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Uncertainty grows over talks' prospects amid tough words from U.S., ominous activity in N.K.

Since last week's no-deal summit, the United States and North Korea have been expressing hope for more talks, but uncertainty has been growing amid tough words from Washington and lingering doubts over Pyongyang's denuclearization commitment.

South Korea has been clamoring for a "mediating" role to keep the nuclear negotiations on track, saying it is ready to have close coordination with the U.S. and increase cross-border cooperation on the belief that better ties with the North could help move the stalled denuclearization process forward.

Last week's summit in Hanoi had been widely expected to produce another denuclearization-for-concession deal after the one reached at the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last June. The two days of talks were, however, abruptly cut short and ended without an agreement.

Right after the summit, Trump blamed Pyongyang for demanding sanctions be lifted "in their entirety" while offering to denuclearize "less important" areas than the U.S. demanded.

North Korean officials refuted the claim, saying they just asked for partial sanctions relief in exchange for permanently dismantling all fissile material facilities at the country's Yongbyon complex in the attendance of American experts.

Washington seems to be toughening its warning of sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands before beginning their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 27, 2019, in footage broadcast live to members of the domestic and international media at the International Media Center in the Vietnamese capital.

National Security Advisor John Bolton, known for his hawkish view on North Korea, has been taking the lead, making almost daily demands for complete denuclearization with warnings of more sanctions.

In a interview with CBS aired Sunday, Bolton said that the North provided a "very limited concession" involving the Yongbyon complex that includes "an aging nuclear reactor and some percentage of their uranium enrichment, plutonium reprocessing capabilities."

He emphasized that it was sanctions that brought the North Koreans back to the negotiating table, and they will remain in place until their denuclearization.

"We will keep the maximum pressure campaign in place even before the summit, and we are looking at ways to tighten it up to stop, for example, the ship-to-ship transfers that the North Koreans are using to evade the sanctions and to talk to other countries to make sure they tighten up on North Korea," he said.

"It's the sanctions that brought the North Koreans to the table. It's the sanctions they want relief from, and relief they can get if they denuclearize," he added.

The U.S. has also expressed a willingness to continue talks, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying he hopes to send a team of officials to Pyongyang in the coming weeks.

"I am hopeful, although I have no commitment yet, that we will be back at it, that I'll have a team in Pyongyang in the next couple weeks continuing to work to find those places where there is shared interest," Pompeo said.

North Korea is maintaining a low profile, with its state media outlets portraying last week's summit as successful and refraining from criticizing the U.S. But ominous signs keep coming in, such as increased activity at key weapons sites, including the Dongchang-ri long-range rocket launch facility.

A day after the summit collapsed, the Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim and Trump agreed to continue "productive dialogues," adding that the dialogue served as an important chance to deepen mutual respect and trust between the two leaders.

The North's state TV also aired a documentary featuring the Kim-Trump summit Thursday, reaffirming its willingness to continue negotiations.

Not all have been positive on the North Korean side.

Shortly after the Hanoi summit, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui told reporters her regime will likely have to rethink the nuclear talks, adding leader Kim seems to be frustrated by the U.S. attitude.

On Tuesday, South Korea's spy agency said that it detected signs of North Korea restoring part of the Dongchang-ri site, known as the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which was partially dismantled last year.

38 North, a U.S. website monitoring the North, also said that "Sohae appears to have returned to normal operational status," citing commercial satellite imagery from Wednesday.

Trump voiced concerns, saying he would be "disappointed" if the reports are true.

Many see the North Korean moves, even if confirmed, as a show designed only to put pressure on the U.S., rather than reactivating the weapons program. Still, concerns are mounting that a protracted stalemate could dim the prospects of future nuclear talks.

South Korea thinks the current shaky situations require a go-between who can bridge their differences, saying it is ready to play that role anytime.

"Now our role has become even more important. My administration will closely communicate and cooperate with the United States and North Korea so as to help their talks reach a complete settlement by any means," Moon said in a speech, a day after the summit.

During a National Security Council meeting Monday, Moon urged Kim and Trump to meet again at an early date to strike a deal and also underlined the importance of Seoul's role in the process again.

In May last year, Moon had a surprise second summit with North Korean leader Kim to save the highly expected first-ever summit between Kim and Trump from the brink of cancellation.

After the Hanoi summit, Moon had a telephone conversation with Trump who asked him to "actively" help mediate future dialogue with the North Korean leader, according to the presidential office.

Seoul is also seeking more active cross-border cooperation, which have been stymied by tough sanctions on Pyongyang, believing such exchanges could contribute to peace and the stalled denuclearization process.

It is, in particular, eyeing restarting an industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong and tours to Mount Kumgang, which have been suspended since 2016 and 2008, respectively, amid frosty inter-Korean relations, saying their resumption could contribute to the denuclearization process.

But the U.S. appears to be in no mood to talk about their resumption.

Asked during a background briefing Thursday if the U.S. was considering sanctions exemptions for the two projects, a senior State Department official said, "No."

Experts say that Seoul should increase its mediating role going forward.

"It must be very perplexing for the South Korean government, which had high expectations for the second summit between North Korea and the U.S.," Cheong Seong-chang, a vice president at the Sejong Institute, said right after the summit ended in failure.

"If there is one consolation, Trump appears to maintain a willingness to continue to negotiate with North Korea," he said. "The South Korean government should step up its consultations with the U.S. and North Korea to make a third summit between the two countries a success."(Yonhap)

Kim Jung-mi  edt@koreapost.com

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