SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea on Tuesday downplayed the possibility of talks with the United States, several days after its leader Kim Jong Un hinted at the possibility of dialogue.
Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of the North Korean leader, said in a statement that the United States appears to have the "wrong" expectation about her brother's recent comments.
"It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek comfort for itself. The expectation, which they chose to harbour the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment," she said in the statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
At a ruling party meeting last week in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un said his country must be prepared for both "dialogue and confrontation."
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday told the ABC television network news program This Week that Kim's comments were an "interesting signal" but that he wanted clearer signs from Pyongyang. He also reiterated that Washington wants to resume direct negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden completed its North Korea policy review last month, saying it was open to talks but insistent that North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons.
During a visit this week to Seoul, Sung Kim, the U.S. envoy for North Korea, said he hopes North Korea will positively respond to meet "anytime, anywhere without preconditions."
The U.S. envoy is meeting this week with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, to portray a unified stance on the North Korean issue.
Despite the flurry of diplomatic activity, Kim Yo Jong's statement suggests there has been little progress on resuming talks, some analysts say.
"We've been waiting for follow up signals from Pyongyang after Kim Jong Un's recent remarks to help clarify his meaning. Kim Yo Jong's statement starts to do that. While she doesn't fully shut out the idea that diplomacy can resume, she appears to suggest it's not likely for now," said Jenny Town, a Korea specialist at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
North Korea has boycotted talks with the United States since 2019. At a summit with Kim Jong Un in February of that year, former U.S. President Donald Trump rejected an offer in which Pyongyang would dismantle a key nuclear complex in exchange for Washington lifting most sanctions.
Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has upended the equation. North Korea went into a severe lockdown in January 2020, cutting off almost all contact with the outside world and even restraining trade with its economic lifeline, China.
"Paranoid about the pandemic, North Korea has severely limited outside contact for a year and a half. It has been eking out national 'self-reliance' with discreet support from China, but border closures have caused much economic disruption," pointed out Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
At a meeting with senior leaders, Kim Jong Un last week formally acknowledged his country is facing a "tense" food situation.
Several foreign media reports, quoting sources inside North Korea, suggest massive price spikes and increasing food shortages. However, confirmation of such stories is difficult since most foreigners, including aid workers and diplomats, have left the country during the pandemic.
"Kim feels the need to address domestic suffering by convening high-profile government meetings more frequently than his father and grandfather. These meetings are largely political theater to cover up failures of economic planning and oppressive social control," Easley said.
North Korea insists to the outside world that it has found no coronavirus cases within its borders - an almost impossible assertion that has been widely disputed by experts. A major outbreak could be devastating for North Korea, an impoverished country that lacks adequate health infrastructure and medical supplies.