North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to still be angling for a nuclear deal with U.S. President Donald Trump, experts say, but there are growing signs that the young dictator is preparing to slap his own version of “maximum pressure” on the American president if things don’t go his way.
In one of the clearest indications of these preparations, senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, who previously led the negotiations with the U.S., said in a statement Tuesday that nuclear talks would not resume “before the complete and irrevocable withdrawal” of what Pyongyang calls the United States’ “hostile policy” toward the North.
His choice of words were as stark as they were mocking.
Kim, a former spy chief, was turning Washington’s long-standing demand for the North’s “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) on its head and portraying the White House as the recalcitrant party in the talks. Those negotiations have effectively been deadlocked since Trump’s February summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi ended in failure.
But the North Korean hard-liner is hardly alone. Two other senior officials have in recent days explicitly signaled that Pyongyang is looking for more than what Washington has been offering in denuclearization discussions.
The two, ex-nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan and current envoy Kim Myong Gil, have also demanded an end to the United States’ “hostile policy.” That nebulous concept leaves a lot of room for the North to pick what concession it wants most from Trump, but the idea has generally referred to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, criticism of the Kim regime and crushing economic sanctions.
“Pyongyang’s response, in re-coining CVID, is very much a reaction to the Trump administration’s decision not to roll back sanctions, coupled with a view that if they start to ratchet up pressure, Trump may weaken with an election approaching and move to loosen U.S. policy regarding sanctions,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.
And with Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline for a “new approach” to the nuclear talks just weeks away, the move means the North has effectively put the ball in Washington’s court.
“The United States needs to seize the public narrative before the deadline and put out a proposal that demonstrates creativity, flexibility, and good faith,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “That will publicly put the burden of action on North Korea.”
Trump and his lieutenants, however, have shown little interest in the North Korea talks in recent weeks as impeachment-related issues suck up all the air in the White House and as he ramps up his re-election bid.
Rather, the U.S. — and the president himself — appear happy to enjoy the benefits of the status quo.
And the lack of provocative nuclear or long-range missile tests, including weapons believed capable of striking most if not all of the continental United States, have allowed the White House to do exactly that.
This year, despite the failed Hanoi summit, which collapsed over a disagreement over the lifting of sanctions and the level of denuclearization, and a patch-things-up meeting at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, Trump has routinely sought to portray the situation on the Korean Peninsula as rosy.
He repeatedly notes that missiles are no longer flying over Japan, painting this as a major foreign policy win, while at the same time brushing away as “very standard” the short-range weapons tests that experts say are designed to evade defenses.
In a tweet addressed to the North Korean leader on Sunday, Trump also reiterated his claim that his unorthodox approach makes him “the only one who can get you where you have to be.”
“You should act quickly, get the deal done. See you soon!” he wrote.
But the North’s response to this apparent call for a third leaders’ summit was quick — and uncharacteristically blunt, considering its past kid-gloves dealings with the mercurial Trump.
In a statement released shortly after the U.S. president’s tweet, Kim Kye Gwan, a former chief North Korean nuclear negotiator, blasted the idea of a third summit, saying Washington was merely looking to buy time, while “pretending it has made progress” in the nuclear negotiations.
“We are no longer interested in such talks that bring nothing to us,” he wrote.
Worse yet for Trump — and for the future of the talks — was the warning that followed.
“As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can boast of, but get compensation for the successes that President Trump is proud of as his administrative achievements,” Kim wrote. “If the U.S. truly wants to keep on dialogue with the DPRK, it had better make a bold decision to drop its hostile policy.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, characterized Kim’s statement, as well as the spate of others by top officials, as “authoritative.” These statements, he said, appeared to be laying the groundwork for a shift in the North’s approach to dealing with Trump.
“That the North Koreans keep issuing public responses to U.S. overtures — and this was a very prompt one, too — suggests they’re no longer really interested in hearing from us and finding out what it is we have to offer,” he said. “The train has left the station.”
Still, others say the North may merely be dusting off its well-worn diplomatic playbook.
Jean Lee, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, called the statements “classic North Korean diplomacy,” but said that there was still hope for the talks.
By having senior officials criticize Trump directly instead of issuing the rebuttal himself, she said, Kim Jong Un has found a way to send a powerful message to Washington while still leaving room to engage with Trump.
“There’s no doubt Kim still wants a deal with Trump,” Lee said. “But he wants more reassurance that he will get more from a potential summit than Washington has offered so far.”
Sanctions relief, in particular, is widely believed to be at the top of the North’s wish list.
In an April 2018 speech, Kim announced that rebuilding his country’s shattered economy was a top priority. But suffocating international and unilateral U.S. sanctions have prevented him accomplishing anything more than superficial improvements.
“It is very clear that only sanctions relief will invest North Korea in a diplomatic process that could lead down the line to denuclearization — at least partially,” said Ken Gause, a North Korea expert and director of the Adversary Analytics program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization.
Gause said that while the North may complain about security issues, such as joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, “this is more to express frustration and drive a wedge than touching Pyongyang’s bottom line.”
The problem, said Gause, is that the U.S. seems unwilling to bend on the easing of sanctions, one of its last remaining forms of leverage in nuclear talks.
“That is why Kim set the end-of-the-year deadline,” he said. “Without sanctions relief, we will be facing many challenges in 2020.”