From Singapore to Hanoi to Stockholm, it is only the venue that changes with scarcely any forward movement, let alone a breakthrough, in the US equation with North Korea.
And so it was in the Swedish capital last Saturday when Pyongyang broke off the nuclear talks, blaming the failure on what it called the “US team’s old attitude”.
In contrast, Washington was rather more defensive, claiming that the “ resumed negotiations in Sweden were good and 70 years of hostility could not be overcome in a day”.
There is, therefore, no common ground. The nub of the matter must be that both the US and North Korea have, for more than a year, been witness to serial failures.
Nuclear proliferation and launching of missiles are much too deep-seated for any quick-fix formula at the high table, a geostrategic truism that both countries must have grasped by now.
The US claim that it had brought “creative ideas” was readily binned by the North, which has asserted that the “negotiations have not fulfilled our expectation and finally broke off.”
These comments, in the reckoning of the US State Department, do not reflect “the content or spirit” of more than eight hours of talks. Washington has accepted Sweden’s invitation to return to Stockholm for more discussions with Pyongyang in two weeks.
It is open to question whether Sweden’s apparent willingness to play the honest broker will be effective. The “nuclear site”, so to speak, has shifted from the two venues of Asia to Europe.
North Korea has downplayed the US gestures, saying they had “raised expectations by offering suggestions like a flexible approach, new methods and creative solutions, but they have disappointed us greatly”.
Clearly, Pyongyang places little or no credence in Washington’s proposed praxis and assurances. And further missile tests cannot be ruled out irrespective of whether they are potent enough to be targeted at the US mainland. Last weekend’s meeting at an isolated conference centre on the outskirts of Stockholm was the first formal working-level discussion since President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, met in June and agreed to restart negotiations that stalled after a failed summit in Vietnam in February.
Since June, US officials had struggled to persuade North Korea to return to the table, but that appeared to change over the weekend when North Korea abruptly announced it had agreed to hold talks.
The talks have followed North Korea’s testing of a ballistic missile from a submarine last Wednesday.
The leaders of both countries faced growing incentives to reach a deal, although it was unclear whether common ground could be found after months of tension and deadlock.
As in another part of the world, US-North Korea relations are inching towards a no-deal construct. The fundamental differences persist.