North Korean authorities issued two separate statements on May 16, 2018, that have been reported to cast doubt on prospects for the Trump-Kim summit scheduled to occur in Singapore on June 12. The statements accuse South Korea of disregarding the newly-minted Panmunjom declaration by allowing U.S.-South Korea joint air drills including nuclear-capable aircraft to go forward on the peninsula and challenge the characterizations and objectives of U.S. senior officials regarding prospective U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks in advance of the Trump-Kim summit. The statements declare the terms upon which North Korea perceives that it is entering into the summit and threaten to walk away from summit talks if the United States pushes for North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization without meeting Pyongyang’s conditions for pursuing “complete denuclearization.”
The timing of the first Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) statement occurred on the eve of the first ministerial-level talks scheduled to occur following the April 27 inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom. North Korea had proposed the ministerial talks a day prior and canceled at the last minute the night before the two sides were to meet. The timing of the announcement appeared designed to maximize impact on South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration by underscoring that his achievements were premised on North Korean cooperation and that North Korea intended to utilize the ambiguously worded Panmunjom declaration to suit its purposes and pursue its objectives.
The timing of the statement and the temporary interruption of inter-Korean contacts was probably designed to induce caution by the Moon administration and to press South Korea to utilize the Panmunjom declaration as an instrument for inducing restraint and curbing the scope of U.S.-South Korea joint exercises. It was probably also to influence Moon to show solidarity with the spirit of the declaration only days prior to his arrival in Washington for a preparatory May 22 summit designed to enhance U.S.-South Korea coordination and facilitate Trump’s preparation for his own highly anticipated June meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. The statement criticizing the air drills was almost exclusively targeted at South Korean authorities’ will to adhere to the Panmunjom declaration. But it did include a vague reference linking the fate of the Trump-Kim summit to North Korea’s desire that the United States and South Korea show greater self-restraint in their conduct of joint military exercises.
North Korea’s second May 16 statement was issued in the name of the country’s Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan, a senior North Korean official with deep prior experience in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, who had been virtually invisible to the public up to now under Kim Jong-un. The statement was primarily aimed at taking issues with public comments by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton that characterized North Korea as having been coerced into a summit meeting by sanctions pressure and rejected expansive U.S. objectives for North Korean denuclearization based on the Libyan model or based on a compensation model that would reward North Korea economically for denuclearization.
This statement was likely designed to publicly set conditions and limits around North Korea’s initial position on denuclearization and to reject Bolton’s Libyan model in favor of a negotiated process in which North Korea engages with the United States on an equal footing as a nuclear state. Most importantly, North Korea reiterated its longstanding view that its return to denuclearization dialogue is rooted in North Korean strength and is conditioned on expectations for tension-reduction and diplomatic normalization with the United States. Kim Kye-gwan’s statement provided a useful public illustration of the extent of the gap between the United States and North Korea over the definition, scope, and duration of a denuclearization process. These are huge issues that arguably should be resolved prior to a high-profile summit meeting between the leaders of the two countries.
Kim Kye-gwan’s statement underscores Pyongyang’s sensitivity to the Trump administration’s messaging surrounding the summit and attempts to highlight gaps between Bolton and Pompeo as a means of preemptively deflecting a good cop-bad cop approach that might be used to maximize pressure on North Korea in the context of summit negotiations. The North Korean statement is not designed to end a process of preparation for a summit, but rather reiterates North Korea’s longstanding opening position in anticipation of further negotiations with the United States. It attempts to rule out some recent U.S. statements as off-limits and suggests that North Korea is prepared to drive a hard bargain at the same time that Trump must deal with increasingly inflated expectations for what he is likely to realistically accomplish toward the stated goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement.
It is likely that that there will be further volatility, contradictory statements, and brinkmanship on both sides in the run-up to a U.S.-North Korea summit. The date of the Trump-Kim meeting could even face temporary postponement. But, in the end, the summit is likely to happen since both leaders will likely find a mutually acceptable basis upon which to proceed. In the meantime, the magnitude of the task of closing the gaps in understanding between the two sides and the all-critical task of fashioning an agreed-upon denuclearization process that would follow on the event of a Trump-Kim meeting will likely require additional high-level meetings between the two sides. Although there are rumors that intelligence officials may have stayed behind in Pyongyang to continue working out a modus operandi, the more likely scenario is that Secretary of State Pompeo will have to make yet another visit to Pyongyang for follow-on talks designed to sketch out the framework for the Trump-Kim summit and the implementation process that would follow. In the meantime, rhetoric on both sides will continue, despite the accompanying risk that misstatements will result in delays.
In the meantime, the two North Korean statements will have also had near-term impact on how Moon approaches Trump in their White House meeting on May 22. North Korea will no doubt evaluate the results of that meeting and assess whether this week’s statements have had the desired effect on Moon and Trump as part of their preparations for next steps toward the Trump-Kim summit.