In North Korea’s most direct comment yet that the planned summit with the U.S. may be in jeopardy, a top official from the nuclear-armed country said Thursday that it will reconsider the meeting if Washington continues with “unlawful and outrageous acts” — a reference to a “Libya-style” coerced denuclearization.
In a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, Choe Son Hui, a North Korean vice foreign minister, said the fate of the June 12 summit in Singapore between leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump rested entirely on the shoulders of the United States.
“Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States,” Choe said.
“In case the U.S. offends against our goodwill and clings to unlawful and outrageous acts, I will put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the DPRK-U.S. summit,” she added, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
With less than three weeks to go before the first-ever planned summit between sitting North Korean and American leaders, both sides have hinted in recent days at the cancellation of the landmark event.
The odds of the meeting being held took a turn for the worse Tuesday when Trump, who was hosting South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the White House, said, “There’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out.”
“There are certain conditions that we want, and I think we’ll get those conditions,” Trump said. “And if we don’t, we don’t have the meeting.”
Still, the U.S. president held out hope that if the June 12 meeting in Singapore is canceled, it could be held at another point in time, noting that he believes Kim is “very serious” about denuclearization. “If it doesn’t happen, maybe it will happen later,” Trump said. “Maybe it will happen at a different time.”
North Korea, for its part, has lambasted the U.S. for pushing for its “unilateral” denuclearization. The Trump administration maintains that it seeks the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear program, with no promise of concessions until that process begins. Pyongyang, meanwhile, has voiced support for a phased and more gradual approach.
Choe’s remarks came a week after Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan — a top North Korean nuclear negotiator — blasted comparisons to Libya and threatened to walk away from the summit, saying the North is not interested in any talks in which it is coerced into relinquishing what it has called its “treasured nuclear sword.”
Choe quest pointed to a Monday interview with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in which he mentioned a “Libya-style” model for denuclearizing the North while also noting that the option of using military force to rid the country of its nuclear arsenal “never came off” the table — despite a growing sense of detente.
North Korea has routinely pointed to U.S. military interventions as justification for its nuclear weapons program, citing in 2013 “the tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programs” — an allusion, in particular, to Libya and its late leader, Moammar Gadhafi, who was shot dead almost immediately after his capture by rebels in 2011.
Gadhafi had agreed in 2003 to roll back his decades-old nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions and a return to the international community.
“U.S. Vice President Pence has made unbridled and impudent remarks that North Korea might end like Libya, military option for North Korea never came off the table, the U.S. needs complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, and so on,” she said. “As a person involved in the U.S. affairs, I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice president.”
Choe warned against comparing North Korea, which has tested sophisticated nuclear bombs and advanced long-range missiles, to Libya, which “met a tragic fate,” while also warning of an “appalling tragedy” for the U.S.
“We could surmise more than enough what a political dummy he is, as he is trying to compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapon state, to Libya that had simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them,” Choe said.
While the Pence interview garnered little media attention in the wake of similar comments recently by Trump national security adviser John Bolton, Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and professor of international relations at MIT said it was clear that the North Koreans were at the top of their diplomatic game, looking for clues to the White House’s intention in every statement.
“I suspect they reacted to Pence saying that the Libya model of ‘Gadhafi’ing’ Kim would be ‘a fact’ if there was no deal, reiterating Trump,” Narang said. It was that, he added, that “really set them off.”
At the same time, the North Koreans also appeared to be hedging with the gambit.
“They are careful to go after Pence and Bolton and not Trump directly, which leaves some room to still move forward with the summit,” Narang said.
But Choe, a fluent English speaker and former director of the Foreign Ministry’s North American department, also stressed that it was not the North, but rather the U.S. that had asked for the talks.
“It is the U.S. who has asked for dialogue, but now it is misleading the public opinion as if we have invited them to sit with us. … We will neither beg the U.S. for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us,” she said.
This claim that the U.S. had initiated the talks would run counter to the narrative that Kim had invited Trump, and he had accepted.
“This could be North Korea’s classic play to throw the U.S. off balance,” said Narang. “Or it could signal that it, too, would be OK if the summit didn’t happen.”