World News

North Korean Threats Add a Wobble to a High-Wire Act of Nuclear Negotiation

Posted May 16, 2018 8:51 p.m. EDT
Updated May 16, 2018 8:54 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday brushed aside threats by North Korea to cancel a summit meeting between President Donald Trump and its leader, Kim Jong Un, but the harsh words underscored the chasm that will separate the two leaders next month in Singapore over how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Trump struck a noncommittal tone about the status of the meeting — “We’ll have to see,” he told reporters — but said he still planned to demand that the North surrender its entire nuclear program. A top North Korean official said Kim would not tolerate attempts to “drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

While administration officials and outside experts said they believed the meeting would go off as planned, the clashing messages brought a diplomatic high-wire act temporarily back to earth, replacing the talk of history-making handshakes and Nobel Peace Prizes with the sober recognition that North Korea views disarmament very differently than the United States does.

The reversal came after months in which Kim presented himself as a statesman, halting missile tests and freeing imprisoned Americans. Now, the North has reverted to its earlier hard-line stance on keeping its nuclear weapons and to a playbook that includes sudden shifts in tactics when negotiating with other nations.

North Korea’s warning came as Trump faced pressure to settle an escalating trade dispute with the North’s principal economic patron, China. Kim has made two trips to China to seek its support since inviting Trump to meet. Some administration officials said they believed that China was exploiting its leverage over North Korea to pressure Trump into a deal on trade.

U.S. officials also said the North appeared to be exploiting the differences between the hawkish views of the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and the more moderate tone of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met twice with Kim in Pyongyang to arrange the summit meeting.

Bolton has said the precedent for the North Korea negotiations should be Libya, which agreed in 2003 to box up its entire nuclear program and ship it out of the country without conditions. North Korea, he said, should expect to receive no benefits, including the lifting of sanctions, until it has done the same.

Pompeo has reiterated that the North would have to agree to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” the technical shorthand used by the administration to describe its bargaining position with Pyongyang. But he has promised that American investment that would flow into North Korea if it agreed to those steps.

The president himself has toggled between hard and soft tones. But on Wednesday, he posted no tweets and offered only a tight-lipped response to North Korea’s warning, which was unusual both because it was signed by the North’s first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, and because it took direct aim at Bolton. “We do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards him,” Kim Kye Gwan said.

The press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was hardly more forthcoming.

“If they want to meet, we’ll be ready,” she told reporters Wednesday, “and if they don’t, that’s OK, too.” She said the White House “fully expected” North Korea to take this tack — an assertion belied by the scrambling of officials when the first reports came in from Pyongyang on Tuesday evening.

Other officials, however, insisted that they were taking North Korea’s warnings in stride, noting that Kim Jong Un, not Trump, had sought the meeting. They said they expected the North to maneuver for tactical advantage until the two leaders met on June 12. People close to the White House said the scattershot nature of the messages on North Korea reflected the newness of the president’s national security team, but also the fact that Trump was distracted by the swirl of legal issues around him, from the Russia investigation to the payments made by his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to a pornographic film actress.

Some suggested that Trump needed to rein in Bolton — a point the North Korean official, Kim Kye Gwan, appeared to be making in his statement. He rejected Bolton’s reference to Libya as a template for North Korea, saying that the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met miserable fates.”

If Pyongyang’s statements caught Washington and Seoul off guard, they reflected a well-established North Korean position: that it is only willing to negotiate with the United States as a fellow nuclear power.

By referring to itself as a “nuclear weapon state,” North Korea was not only distinguishing itself from Libya or Iraq, it was also potentially signaling that the North is seeking an arms control agreement, not disarmament. Under such an arrangement, analysts said, North Korea would be treated like the Soviet Union and later Russia, which were asked to limit, rather than eliminate, their arsenals. While the daylight between Bolton and Pompeo gives the North Koreans the opportunity to drive a wedge between members of the president’s team, officials said that was a more manageable problem than when Trump publicly undercut Pompeo’s predecessor as secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, over how to deal with North Korea.

Beyond that, administration officials expressed few qualms about the White House’s strategy. They noted that the United States had not made any concessions to Kim Jong Un, aside from the meeting itself. Kim has agreed to stop nuclear and missile tests and to blow up an underground nuclear site in the presence of foreign journalists.

Analysts and former officials agreed that North Korea’s change of heart was both inevitable and useful as a clarifying moment.

“This indicates that we’re getting into a serious negotiation,” said Evan S. Medeiros, an Asia adviser to President Barack Obama. “The Trump administration has this very maximalist model, and North Korea is at the other end of the spectrum. They’re putting the U.S. on notice that what you think is going to happen is not going to happen.”

North Korea, other analysts said, had begun to fear looking weak by taking unilateral steps, like its moratorium on missile tests. The United States, rather than offering concessions of its own, has vowed to keep up maximum pressure on the North if it fails to denuclearize swiftly.

“The last thing Kim Jong Un can afford is to look like he is surrendering his nuclear weapons,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. North Korea’s coordination with China has become an important factor in strengthening its bargaining position. When Kim met recently with President Xi Jinping in Beijing and the coastal city of Dalian, he sought support for his country’s longstanding demand that Washington and its allies take “synchronized” steps to satisfy the North’s security needs in return for any “phased” moves toward denuclearization.

North Korea turned to China because, as the North’s biggest economic benefactor, it can provide the best economic and political cover as Kim confronts Trump over his demands. China, in turn, may use the upcoming negotiations to gain an edge on Trump on trade. A top Chinese economic official, Liu He, is meeting in Washington with U.S. officials this week.

Victor D. Cha, who negotiated with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, said its tough words were “a splash of cold water on all of those who thought this was going to be easier and different this time.” He predicted there would be several more bumps before June 12.

“Welcome to the world of negotiating with the obstreperous North Koreans,” Cha said.