North Korea wants sanctions eased on metal, fuel and ‘liquor and suits’ to restart US talks

North Korea wants a raft of international sanctions eased – including on imports of luxury items such as high-class liquors and suits – before it will restart denuclearisation talks with the United States, South Korean lawmakers have said.

Pyongyang has also called for sanctions banning its metal exports and imports of refined fuel and other necessities to be lifted, the lawmakers said on Tuesday after being briefed by Park Jie-won, head of the South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).

The remarks came as the NIS said North Korea was distributing emergency military reserves of rice amid a severe food shortage and economic crisis caused by a drought and made worse by the coronavirus pandemic. The reserves are usually held for wartime.

Last week the two Koreas restored hotlines that North Korea suspended a year ago, the first hint in months that Pyongyang might be more responsive to engagement efforts. The move was initiated by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and the two countries were talking twice a day, the NIS claimed.

Citing Park, Ha Tae-keung, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, told reporters on Tuesday: “As a precondition to reopen talks, North Korea argues that the United States should allow mineral exports and imports of refined oil and necessities.

“I asked which necessities they want the most, and they said high-class liquors and suits were included, not just for Kim Jong-un’s own consumption but to distribute to Pyongyang’s elite,” he said, referring to North Korea’s leader.

North Korea’s state-run media made no mention on Tuesday of any new request for the lifting sanctions to restart talks.

Washington has given no indication of a willingness to ease sanctions ahead of any talks. US secretary of state Antony Blinken planned to call on south-east Asian counterparts in a virtual meeting this week to fully implement sanctions on North Korea, department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday.

Price reiterated on Tuesday that the US was willing to meet North Korea “anytime, anywhere, without preconditions,” but there had been no response.

Another state department spokesperson added, “In the meantime, in the absence of any type of engagements, United Nations sanctions on [North Korea] remain in place and we will continue to enforce them along with the international community.”

The United Nations has imposed a wide range of sanctions on North Korea over its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The US and others have also imposed their own sanctions.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 and a historic meeting between Kim and former US president Donald Trump in 2018 raised hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough.

Trump had two subsequent meetings with Kim but made no progress in getting North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for sanctions relief.

On Sunday, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong warned South Korea that its joint exercises with the US, which North Korea sees as preparations for an invasion, would undermine a thaw between the two Koreas.

Kim Byung-kee, another South Korean legislator, quoted Park as saying there was “a need to consider responding flexibly to South Korea-US military exercises”.

Ha Tae-keung said Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in had expressed a willingness to rebuild trust and improve ties since April and Kim had asked to reconnect the hotlines.

The two lawmakers also said the NIS believes there is no indication that Kim Jong-un has a health issue, following recent photos that appeared to show a bandage on the back of his head.

The NIS said Kim has been actively making public appearances and his movements have appeared normal.

With Reuters and Associated Press