SEOUL—North Korea wants to have good ties with the U.S., a diplomat said in a December meeting with a European lawmaker, in one of Pyongyang’s only exchanges with the West in recent months, according to people familiar with the matter.
Kim Jong Un
regime has cut contact with much of the outside world this year. It sealed off its borders to battle Covid-19. Most foreign embassies in Pyongyang have closed. North Korea has rebuffed overtures from the U.S. and South Korea to rekindle peace talks.
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But in the days before the November U.S. elections, North Korea reached out to a European Parliament committee, tasked with handling Korean Peninsula ties, for an online meeting, the people said. The head of the European Parliament delegation,
agreed to an informal videoconference conversation with North Korea’s Berlin ambassador.
The early December exchange had been suggested by the North’s officials from its Berlin embassy, which after Britain’s planned exit from the European Union in January, has replaced London as the Kim regime’s de facto hub for regional affairs.
In the roughly one-hour meeting, the North Korean ambassador repeated a goal of forging a strong relationship with the U.S., so long as Washington’s hostile policy to the Kim regime is dropped, the people said. The stance was received positively, one of the people said, as it didn’t represent a darkening in Pyongyang’s position as President-elect
North Korea and the European Parliament also expressed hope to send delegations each way as early as fall 2021, the people said.
The European Parliament plays only a minor role on European Union foreign policy decisions but its lawmakers have political ties across the bloc. In recent years, U.S. allies in Europe have served as one of the few go-betweens between Washington and Pyongyang, as the two countries have stalemated on nuclear talks.
North Korea has embassies in several European countries. Though it has no diplomatic presence in Washington, Pyongyang retains a mission at the United Nations.
Mr. Mandl, an Austrian who is the chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with the Korean Peninsula, confirmed the exchange with the North Korean ambassador. North Korea’s Berlin embassy didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
North Korea, battling sanctions, the pandemic and summer floods, has been consumed by domestic affairs that will take center stage at a rare Workers’ Party Congress meeting in early January. Delegates had arrived in Pyongyang for what will be the first congress meeting in four years, the North’s state media reported Thursday.
In prior years, Mr. Kim has delivered a New Year’s Day speech, though it remains unclear if he will do so Friday given the party congress meeting. North Korea’s economy is projected to suffer its worst slide in a generation, with Mr. Kim having made a rare admission over the summer that the current strategy had failed. Senior officials are expected to soon deliver a new five-year economic plan.
In a New Year’s speech at the start of 2020, Mr. Kim implored citizens to brace for a protracted period of sanctions, while promising to unveil a new strategic weapon. He also said the North was no longer bound to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range weapons tests.
The Kim regime, which did conduct a handful of smaller weapons tests, hasn’t test-fired an ICBM or conducted a nuclear test in more than three years.
Close Pyongyang watchers expect the North will exercise some caution as it evaluates how an incoming Biden administration will approach denuclearization talks. North Korea has preferred a step-by-step process, as the U.S. removes some economic penalties. Washington has coveted a grander bargain in which the North agrees to specifics before sanctions are relaxed.
Mr. Biden has advocated for mixing pressure with what he calls “principled diplomacy” and lower-level talks to hash out a deal. He has also rejected Mr. Trump’s strategy of unconditional summits with Mr. Kim.
North Korea hasn’t commented on Mr. Biden’s election. In July,
Kim Yo Jong,
sister of the regime’s leader, said she doubted another nuclear summit would happen until the U.S. dropped hostilities toward the North and changed negotiating tactics.
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