White House wrongfooted as officials scramble to save North Korea summit

Trump’s announcement of North Korean denuclearisation now seems premature

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un  and US president Donald Trump. Photograph:  Getty

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and US president Donald Trump. Photograph: Getty

 

It is not unusual for North Korea to abruptly cancel a meeting – it has done so several times in recent months and years.

But its decision to cancel an inter-Korean meeting and threats that it might pull out of the June 12th summit with the United States is deeply unsettling given the developments of recent months.

This year has seen an astonishing thaw in relations between Washington and Pyongyang, as the momentum builds towards the first ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting US president.

The past few weeks have seen some real progress: secretary of state Mike Pompeo has met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un twice in Pyongyang over the past six weeks; three American hostages were released from captivity in North Korea, and satellite images appeared to show that North Korea has begun closing its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri.

The announcement from Pyongyang appears to have taken the White House by surprise. The state department confirmed it had no prior knowledge of the announcement, which emerged a week after Pompeo met Kim Jong-un for a second time.

On Wednesday, US president Donald Trump was uncharacteristically restrained as he faced repeated questions from reporters in the Oval Office, replying “we will see” and “time will tell” as he faced a barrage of questions. He has refrained so far from tweeting about the matter, despite several tweets on Wednesday on other issues.

Cool heads

But the unfamiliar sight of cool heads in the White House is undoubtedly masking a flurry of activity. South Korea’s foreign ministry said that minister Kang Kyung-hwa spoke to Pompeo immediately after North Korea’s postponement of the talks.

Much of the lengthy statement issued by North Korea on Wednesday can be brushed away as the kind of hyperbolic tough-guy talk that characterises the country’s political messaging: Pyongyang spoke of its “repugnance” for John Bolton, the foreign policy hawk and new national security adviser who was dismissed as “human scum” and a “bloodsucker” by the North Korean administration in 2003.

But behind the bluster, the comments attributed to vice-foreign minister Kim Kye-Gwan point to a real problem for the Americans. North Korea appears to be ruling out complete denuclearisation – something that Trump seems to have called for, and indeed pre-emptively assumed.

In a tweet on April 22nd, the US president claimed that North Korea had “agreed to denuclearisation – so great for the world”. In fact the North Koreans, in the statement issued on Wednesday, specifically state that if the US forces “unilateral nuclear abandonment”, then the country “will no longer be interested in such dialogue”.

Glaring gap

While the glaring gap between America and North Korea about what constitutes denuclearisation may be expected at this stage of the process, there is a worrying lack of clarity from the US about what it wants from the Singapore summit. Divisions are also apparent between Bolton and Pompeo.

Bolton is taking a hard-line view, suggesting that North Korea must abandon its entire nuclear programme before sanctions can be lifted. Pompeo appears to be in favour of a softer approach, and is driving the preparations for the talks.

Where Trump lands is anyone’s guess. The president is evidently fully behind the Singapore summit, perhaps mindful of recent suggestions that he may be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

North Korea may well be bluffing in its threat to the US, but setting expectations for what it wants from the June 12th summit is crucial for the Trump administration as it prepares the ground for Singapore.

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