Pyongyang’s threat that it is ready to call of the planned meeting between North Korea’s leader and the US President is a reality check for the Trump administration — especially for Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
Should Washington take North Korea’s threat seriously?
Washington and Pyongyang’s bluffs, posturing and brinkmanship in the run-up to the highly expected summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should be expected. Similarly, North Korea’s history of sudden diplomatic maneuvers, for instance when it canceled a secretly planned meeting between US Vice President Mike Pence and Pyongyang officials during this year’s Winter Olympics at the last minute, is also well established.
That means that Washington, for now, need not panic about the upcoming summit, but it also should not regard Pyongyang’s threat to walk away from the meeting as mere bluff. North Korea had called off a planned meeting with South Korea in protest over joint US-South Korean military exercises, which Pyongyang considered an aggressive gesture.
“I expected them to object and perhaps if the United States does not satisfy their demands, this summit meeting can be aborted”, Han Park, a former unofficial US-North Korean negotiator who secured the release of two detained American journalists in 2009, and facilitated the 1994 Pyongyang visit of former US President Jimmy Carter told DW.
“It’s not a complete surprise that North Korea would respond to these exercises by demonstrating to Trump that these negotiations are going to be a complex process and the United States should not take North Korea’s participation for granted”, concurred Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association.
She suggested that Washington, during ongoing negotiations, consider de-emphasizing elements of the joint exercise that North Korea views as most provocative. According to a South Korean media report, US nuclear-capable strategic bombers, which had originally been scheduled to participate, will now not take part in the exercises.
North Korea’s threat to cancel the meeting can also be understood as a response to President Trump who has repeatedly described himself as savvy negotiator. Just recently he lashed out against former top US diplomat John Kerry for refusing to walk away from negotiations during the Iran nuclear agreement talks. Kerry’s unwillingness to walk away from the talks, according to Trump, ultimately led to an agreement which the president has labeled the “worst deal” in history – one which he just recently pulled the US out of.
With its threat to scrap the leadership summit, Kim, in a way, has now one-upped Trump, by stating that he might not just away from a bad deal, but that is ready to not even show up for a meeting that does not meet his conditions. Having said that, both Trump and Kim have an avid interest in making the historic meeting become a reality, if only to play to their respective domestic audiences.
What should the Trump administration glean from Pyongyang’s comments?
“We have to have a realistic assessment of North Korea in terms of their desires and plans”, said Han Park, the former unofficial US-North Korean negotiator who visited North Korea more than 50 times. A coherent plan or a long-term strategy to deal with Pyongyang beyond the Trump’s administration mantra of denuclearization remains absent, added Park:
“Sure, Trump would like denuclearization, but North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear aspirations and to have military defense capability against the United States. They are not going to give up that capability without assurance of peace. And we have not discussed what we can give North Korea for peace and denuclearization.”
If the Trump administration is serious about negotiations about denuclearization, it must address Pyongyang’s security concerns, said Davenport. “It views the US military presence in the region as a threat and Washington is going to need to reduce that threat if it wants North Korea to take meaningful steps to halt and reverse its nuclear weapons program.”
In preparation for the summit, the US, especially the president himself, need to understand that there is a price to pay for steps toward North Korean nuclear disarmament, the experts said. The US also needs to be aware that such an effort will take time and cannot be achieved in one high profile setting, between Trump and Kim.
“At best it is the start of something, at worst it is one demonstrative, symbolic gesture, especially on the part of Trump”, said Park.
Instead of focusing too much on this one event, Washington, said Davenport, should concentrate on “denuclearization as a long-term goal that recognizes that in the interim steps that reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and that reduce North Korea’s capacity to expand its arsenal can still be meaningful and benefit US national security.
John Bolton played a controversial role during the George W. Bush administration
Why was John Bolton singled out by North Korea?
In a statement, former North Korean nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan attacked President Trump’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton, stating that: “We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him”. Kim took issue with Bolton — a hardliner who has a history of advocating for US preventative military action in countries like Iraq, Iran and North Korea — suggesting recently Libya’s nuclear disarmament as a model for North Korea.
That comparison, understandably, did not go down well in Pyongyang, because less than ten year’s after Libya ended its nuclear activities, the country’s leader was toppled and killed after an outside military intervention that included the US.
What Kim’s missive did not mention explicitly but what is probably an even better explanation for North Korea’s hostility towards Bolton is his past role in nixing a nuclear deal that a previous US administration had reached with Pyongyang — just as he did recently with the Iran deal.
“North Korea has legitimate reason to distrust John Bolton”, said Davenport. “John Bolton was instrumental in killing the negotiated agreement between the United States and North Korea when Bush succeeded Clinton as president.”
Like the later Iran nuclear accord, the so-called Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 by Bill Clinton was extremely controversial and never ratified by Congress. President Bush’s description of North Korea as being part of the so-called axis of evil marked the de-facto end of the agreement.
Former US-North Korea negotiator Park, who knows Bolton personally, thinks Trump’s National Security Advisor holds an anachronistic view on global affairs. “He is basically a militarist. He thinks things will be taken care of through military means. But that time is gone. We cannot use military means against North Korea.”
But Park also offered some advice for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently said that if Pyongyang took “bold action to quickly denuclearize, the United States is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on the par with our South Korean friends.”
“When Pompeo suggests that North Korea can be assisted by the US to become like South Korea – that’s not what they want. They don’t want to be a small South Korea. They want the money, but not through capitalist, private ownership means whatsoever. They don’t want to be like East Germany.”