We are all familiar with this kind of brinkmanship, yet the latest North Korean threat to derail its denuclearization talks with the US is disappointing. Most of all, it only elevates further skepticism about the regime’s disarmament commitment.
The threat, which came in a news conference in Pyongyang by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui last Friday, is seen as a move to pressure the US to make concessions. Considering its past behavior, it fell short of an ultimatum or a prelude to an impending major provocation, but it still cast dark clouds over the denuclearization talks that began with the historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore last June.
Choe’s news conference came 15 days after the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un broke down in Hanoi. The vice minister, who participated in the Hanoi talks, shifted all blame for the failed summit to the US side.
She said Pyongyang has no intention of compromising or continuing with negotiations unless the US takes measures that are commensurate to the actions it has taken, including the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. The North Korean demand was focused on relief on international sanctions imposed after its past nuclear and missile provocations.
The vice minister said Kim will soon decide whether to continue talks with the US and will also “clarify his position” on whether to maintain the moratorium within a short period of time.
Mentioning the possibility of ending the 15-month moratorium is seen aimed to put pressure on Trump since the US president frequently cited it as one of his major foreign policy achievements.
Kim may well know that a single ballistic missile test by the North would wipe out what the US president has said was a feat that none of his predecessors could achieve.
Choe’s warning that Kim may lift the moratorium came after satellite images released by US think tanks suggested the North is engaging in construction work at one of its main launch sites it had promised to shut down.
What should also be noted is that Choe’s news conference -- she invited not only foreign media but also diplomats -- followed an apparent shift to a hardline position of the US side after the Hanoi summit.
National Security Adviser John Bolton led off the series of hardline comments on the North, which were highlighted with emphasis on a final, fully-verified denuclearization and maintaining of the sanctions until the goal is achieved. Secretary of State Pompeo and Stephen Biegun, the US special representative on North Korea, both of whom had kept milder position on the North than Bolton, joined the fray.
For instance, Biegun said in a forum that the US is “not going to do denuclearization incrementally” and will try to get a “total solution. “This is a definite refutation of the North Korean demand for a phased approach combining sanctions relief in return for the moratorium and some other minor disarmament actions it has taken.
While Choe’s statement is seen as an effort to put brakes on the hardening of the US position, what needs to be noted is that the North took care not to push the game back to square one.
Most of all, the North deliberately chose Choe, not her seniors like Foreign Minister Li Yong-ho or Kim Yong-chol, Pompeo’s counterpart, to make the announcement on a possible lifting of the moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
In addition, she focused her criticism of the US side only on Trump’s aides like Bolton and Pompeo. She said that statements by senior Trump advisers since the Hanoi summit have further worsened the climate.
It was apparent that the North did not want to provoke Trump for now. Choe even said that personal relations between the two leaders are still good and the “chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.”
Indeed, the word wonderful is one that is frequently used by Trump as well in describing his relationship with Kim. Responding to Choe’s statement, Pompeo also said the US hoped to continue talks with the North.
But the latest developments clearly show that what the two men who say are in wonderful relationship had promised to do is never going wonderfully.