A week ago, President Trump and Kim Jong Un said they’d meet in Singapore on June 12 for a historic summit on North Korea’s nuclear program. On Tuesday night, North Korea threatened to call the whole thing off.
The statement from North Korean Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan blasted the Trump administration in over-the-top terms (“ridiculous comedy”) and suggested the North might “no longer be no longer be interested in … dialogue” with the US.
The obvious question: Why is North Korea, which had been all sweetness and light for the past several months of negotiations, all of a sudden saying it might back out of the talks? And is this a serious threat, or just some kind of gambit to set the terms for the upcoming talks?
There’s an unusually strong consensus among North Korea experts about the answer. They don’t believe Pyongyang is trying to scuttle the talks, at least not yet. Instead, Kim may be trying to reset Trump’s expectations and make him understand that North Korea isn’t willing to hand over its nukes.
“This is all part of the negotiation,” Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says. “The Trump administration has laid out a maximal starting position — raising expectations of dramatic North Korean concessions for little in return. Now Kim has laid out his own position.”
Now, it had long been clear that there was a divide between Trump and Kim over the goal of these talks. The reason this is being discussed now is because — and I’m being serious about this — North Korean leaders watch American television.
More specifically, they watched uber-hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton’s appearances on two Sunday news talk shows this week, where he insisted on a complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. Bolton’s statements, paired with similar ones from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on a third Sunday show, alarmed the North Koreans — leading to this effort to make their negotiating position clearer.
“All parties had left definitions sufficiently vague to allow things to proceed, but Bolton/Pompeo were on Sunday talk shows making very clear they were after [complete denuclearization],” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale Law School, tells me. “North Korea never signed up for that, and Kim doesn’t want to look weak or submissive headed into the summit.”
So Bolton, intentionally or not, has forced the two sides to confront the central problem with the upcoming negotiations: The US is demanding something North Korea has shown no sign of being willing to give. It’s not clear if the president understands this dynamic, and if he doesn’t get it, then the upcoming summit is set to crash and burn.
Perhaps the most striking thing about North Korea’s statement, if you read the whole thing, is how laser-focused it was on Bolton and his comments. It takes particular offense at a comparison Bolton made in one of his TV spots between North Korea on the one hand, and Libya under Muammar Qaddafi on the other.
Up until 2003, Libya had an active nuclear weapons program, though it had not yet built a working device. That year, Libya came to an agreement with the Bush administration to hand over all the nuclear materials it possessed, including rudimentary plans for a device, and tell the US government where it had acquired the weapons. Bolton suggested that this is exactly what would be on offer for North Korea.
“It’s up to the North Koreans to show us that they really do intend to give up nuclear weapons,” he said. “I think we’re looking at the Libya model of 2003.”
The national security adviser has said things like this before, even going so far as to endorse striking North Korea if they wouldn’t hand over their nukes. But this time, Pyongyang was paying attention — and it explicitly singled out Bolton’s comments as the reason for its threat to pull out of the Trump-Kim summit.
“It is absolutely absurd to dare compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapons state, to Libya, which had been in the initial state of nuclear development,” the statement explains. “We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feelings of repugnance toward him.”
References to Libya rankle the North, in particular, because of what eventually happened to Qaddafi. Eight years after the denuclearization agreement, the US intervened in a Libyan civil war, siding with rebels against Qaddafi. US intervention proved decisive, and Qaddafi’s regime was toppled — you can watch videos of rebels capturing and gruesomely torturing the deposed leader online before killing him. North Korea is very aware of this; it built its nuclear arsenal in large part to deter a US attack and avoid Qaddafi’s fate.
The statement sends an extremely blunt message: North Korea will not go the way of Libya. If Trump listens to Bolton on what to ask, it seems likely that the talks could fail.
“If the Trump administration fails to recall the lessons of the past … owing to the likes of Bolton, and turns its ear to the advice of quasi-‘patriots’ who insist on the Libya model,” the North Koreans say, “prospects of upcoming DPRK-US summit and overall DPRK-US relations will be crystal clear.”
It’s tempting to try to read North Korean statements in some kind of code, to try to figure out the hidden meaning behind the words on the page. Sometimes that’s the right approach. But in this case, experts say, the North is simply laying out its negotiating position in the plainest terms possible — trying to make it extremely obvious to its negotiating partners what the red lines are.
“[Kim] is making it clear that if Trump and company think he’s going to show up at the summit ready to quickly hand over his treasured nuclear sword in return for nothing until that happens, they’re dreaming,” says Kingston Reif, a nuclear expert at the Arms Control Association.
If there is any kind of subtler goal, it’s to try to empower the more moderate voices in the Trump administration: to tell the White House that Bolton isn’t someone they can deal with, and that if the president wants to make a deal, he’ll have to listen to others in the administration.
“They can very evenly tell [Trump] to take John Bolton’s tongue out of his ear if he wants to get serious,” says Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies.
Notably, the statement does not heap venom on Secretary of State Pompeo personally in the way that it does Bolton, despite Pompeo also suggesting on Sunday that America wants the North to denuclearize. In fact, there’s even a favorable reference to the two trips Pompeo has already made to Pyongyang, suggesting they see him as someone they can deal with — unlike Bolton.
So while the threat to cancel the talks is at the top of all the headlines, the real story here isn’t that the North Koreans want to walk away; it’s that they’re trying to tell Trump not to do something that might force them to.
The Trump administration’s response to the North Korean statement has been mixed.
On the one hand, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders disavowed Bolton’s “Libya model” comments, saying, “I’m not aware that that’s a model that we’re using.” On the other hand, Trump himself told reporters that he was still insisting on complete nuclear disarmament, responding to North Korea’s threat to withdraw with his patented “we’ll see what happens” line.
It’s not actually clear, then, whether the Trump administration is getting the message North Korea is trying to put out — that they won’t give up their nukes. And that’s the problem.
Both sides had long agreed that the goal of talks was the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. But they had radically different definitions as to what that means. Trump seemed to have in mind something that nuclear experts call CVID — complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization — and insisted they wouldn’t make any concessions until North Korea started doing so. The North, by contrast, has always insisted that denuclearization would entail a kind of grand bargain in which the United States ends its alliance with South Korea.
Absent concessions on that level, which have never been on the table, what they want from the Americans is an acceptance of their nuclear weapons — the opposite of denuclearization.
“We knew North Korea wasn’t going to give up nukes, and we knew a grand bargain-style deal would be problematic for Kim Jong Un,” says Van Jackson, a scholar at Victoria University of Wellington. “The question was always how Kim was going to play it — what does North Korea say and do so that it can get prestige [and] sanctions relief, and still keep nukes?”
So what was happening before this week was dangerous: two sides racing toward talks with completely different senses of what those talks could and should accomplish. Bolton’s Sunday show comments have forced the issue: make it impossible for North Korea to ignore the yawning gulf between its position and the US’s, and try to take some steps to solve it.
“This has been coming for a while — it’s the reckoning over ‘denuclearization’,” Rapp-Hooper says. “The only question was whether this would happen at the summit or before it.”
So, ironically, this could end up being a good thing. If Sanders’s walkback actually ends up representing the White House position, and the Trump team starts scaling down its ambitions, then maybe they can come to some kind of more moderate but still useful agreement — like agreeing to relax sanctions in exchange for North Korea giving up the ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States.
“The biggest risk heading into the summit has been that Trump, egged on by Bolton, has wildly unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved,” Reif says. “My hope, and perhaps it is misplaced, is that North Korea’s message last night will convince Trump and especially Pompeo, who have the most invested in a successful summit, to set more realistic expectations.”
But there’s always the chance they don’t. In that case, the summit is destined to fail — or to collapse before it starts.
“It is certainly plausible that Kim may back out of the summit,” says Denmark, the Wilson Center scholar. “I expect he would prefer that Trump get the blame for actually killing it.”
Alex Ward contributed reporting to this piece.