The news out of Korea or, more appropriately, between North Korea and the United States, has continued to move apace, up to and including this week’s summit meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump. Indeed, we have witnessed what I presaged earlier this month, namely: the continued existence of a hardline U.S. stance, Pyongyang’s response in kind, and the ever-present existence of fundamental fissures between the two, both in what is meant by denuclearization and also in how it is to be achieved (if at all). Today, the process culminated in Trump’s cancellation of his June 12 summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The same truculent realities I examined in earlier articles reared their head more openly last week. In particular, last Wednesday North Korea cancelled high-level talks with South Korea, ostensibly due to its displeasure over the combined U.S.-ROK Max Thunder air force drills. North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, stated that the drill is “a clear indication that the U.S. and the south Korean military remain unchanged in their ulterior motive to stifle the DPRK by force at any cost. It is a foolish daydream for the U.S. to get something by pressuring the DPRK by force.”
Furthermore, First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK Kim Kye-gwan was quoted in KCNA threatening to pull out of the June 12 Kim-Trump summit unless the Trump administration, specifically National Security Advisor John Bolton, moved away from its insistence on the so-called Libya model of denuclearization (i.e. relinquishing nuclear weapons before any reciprocal concessions are provided). As I mentioned before, the Libya model is a nonstarter for Pyongyang and was so long before Western-backed militias ever dragged Muammar Gaddafi through the streets.
When asked by reporters at the White House for comment on these developments, Trump, in his inimitable, slapdash style, noted such a model was not what his administration had in mind for the summit. Then, in the same breath, he stated that if Kim Jong-un “doesn’t make a deal” to give up his nuclear weapons, the Libya-style solution (read: regime change) would in fact be on the table.
On Monday, a day before Moon’s arrival, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the point during an interview with Fox, saying: “There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the president made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal.”
Meanwhile, Pyongyang kept up its side of the equation. Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, released a highly critical article the day of the Moon-Trump meeting. Titled, “Dependence on Outsiders Ruins Country,” it argued vociferously against any dependence on foreign powers for economic growth or security. The diatribe was a clear (and well-worn) rebuke of South Korea, whose own remarkable economic growth has long depended on deep ties to the global market and foreign investment, but also appeared to be a reference to the Trump administration’s stance that large economic benefits and growth would come to Pyongyang if it struck a deal to denuclearize.
So, that is where things stood before the Moon-Trump meeting at the White House. In short: uncertain, possibly unraveling, or maybe just adjusting as both sides sent signals to bolster their respective negotiating positions.
Unfortunately, Trump’s remarks at the White House, during a joint press conference with Moon, did nothing to clarify matters. Speaking about the potential of a summit with Kim, Trump stated:
There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions. And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting. And frankly, it has a chance to be a great, great meeting for North Korea and a great meeting for the world. If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later. Maybe it will happen at a different time. But we will see.
Later, he said: “And, you know, there’s a chance that it will work out. There’s a chance; there’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out.” Translation: the summit might not happen, might be delayed, or might happen as scheduled.
What about those conditions Trump spoke of? Officially, the U.S. position is complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID), and the Trump team appears to want it packaged up-front. Reportedly that is what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed during his meeting in Pyongyang with Kim earlier this month, outlining plans for a fast and comprehensive denuclearization plan.
When asked at the press conference with Moon how denuclearization would take place and if it would be all at once, Trump at first signaled that was still his position: “I have a very strong idea how it takes place. And it must take place. That’s what we’re talking about. It must take place.” He also went so far as to say that Kim Jong-un is “absolutely very serious” about denuclearization, a belief that most of his own cabinet does not share and which the overwhelming majority of Korea-watchers severely doubt.
Yet, when later asked if it was to be an “all-in-one” deal or incremental, with incentives along the way, Trump responded in a manner that indicated more flexibility:
Well, all in one would be nice, I can tell you. I’m not going to go beyond that. It would certainly be better if it were all in one. Does it have to be? I don’t think I want to totally commit myself. But all in one would be a lot better. Or at least for physical reasons, over a very short period of time. You know, you do have some physical reasons that it may not be able to do exactly that. So for physical reasons, over a very short period of time. Essentially, that would be all in one.
Briefly put, like the summit itself, Trump’s ultimate position appeared to be in flux, at times consistent with that of his advisers, at others completely at odds.
What of Pyongyang’s position? Dr. Daniel Pinkston, lecturer in International Relations at Troy University and an expert on North Korea politics, observed in an email that in the short term Pyongyang’s recent bellicose rhetoric is geared to “signal resolve, to try to set or influence the agenda.” However, more generally, Pinkston said, “This has been a long-term pattern”:
Belligerence, borderline acts of war, threats, and shrill rhetoric followed by peace overtures. Projecting an image of reason and the will to compromise. Signaling to its counterpart that North Korea can be reasonable and cooperative…..as long as its demands are met. It’s a process to extract concessions. If concessions are made, North Korea pockets those, and then it will continue to “fight the revolution to achieve the final victory under the guidance of the Korean Workers’ Party.”
Beyond North Korea being North Korea, there is also the argument that Kim may be placating the more hardline members of the Korean People’s Army and Workers’ Party. In fact, reports indicate that at the same meeting where Pompeo focused on fast and comprehensive denuclearization, Kim was most concerned about the logistics of traveling to Singapore, his security while on the ground there, and possibly the threat of a military coup or other internal attempt to unseat him while away from home. Lastly, there are Pyongyang’s persistent, longstanding concerns about the strength of any security guarantee offered by the United States, Trump’s statement that he will guarantee the regime’s safety notwithstanding.
As for South Korea’s Moon, he doggedly carries on in order to simply keep tensions low. He puts his best face forward, states North Korea will come back to inter-Korean talks once air force drills end, directly appeals to Pompeo and Bolton to stay the course, and repeatedly praised Trump in order to keep the summit talks from falling apart.
Sitting next to Trump, Moon remarked that: “President Trump has been able to achieve this dramatic and positive change that you see right now.” He continued, “President Trump will be able to achieve a historic feat of making the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit successful and end the Korean War that had been lasting for the past 65 years.” Through outright flattery and the promise of a big win (or at least the appearance of one), Moon hoped to keep Trump engaged in a process of rolling summits and away from bellicose threats of war. His hard work appears to have fallen short, at least for now.
North Korea responded antagonistically to the Moon-Trump summit and, more specifically, Pence’s comments about the Libya solution. Yesterday, KCNA quoted Choe Son-hui, a vice minister of foreign affairs, lambasting Pence for his “ignorant and stupid remarks” and threatened that if the Washington sticks to its “unlawful and outrageous acts” Pyongyang would “reconsider the DPRK-US summit.” She also claimed Washington rather than Pyongyang asked for dialogue, saying, “We will neither beg for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us.” Trump, never one to be upstaged in his haphazard drama, beat Pyongyang to the punch.
So where does this leave us? In sum, we remain captive to two obstreperous forces: a tyrannical, nuclear-armed regime, unwilling to give up its ultimate deterrent, and a U.S. president who impetuously rushed into a negotiating process he was singularly incapable of adjudicating and that his own closest advisers fundamentally opposed. All the heady optimism of a coming peace will once again have to wait.
Editor’s Note: As we initially finished formatting this article, word broke that U.S. President Donald Trump had cancelled the summit. It has since been updated.