It is never rare for North Korea to backpedal in its dealings with South Korea and the US. But the apparent shift in its positon toward the two key partners in its denuclearization talks is disappointing.
In an obvious warning against both Seoul and Washington, the North unilaterally canceled high-level talks with the South planned for Wednesday, citing the allies’ joint air drills.
It also is not the first time that Pyongyang has condemned South Korea-US military exercises and used them as a card in its dealings with the two allies. But the North’s threat to pull out of even the summit between its leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump raises some concerns.
It is not easy to predict the North’s course of action in a matter like this. But what seems certain is that Kim wanted to send a message to both Moon and Trump, who will meet in Washington on May 22, 20 days before the historic Trump-Kim meeting set for June 12 in Singapore.
His first message could be “Don’t push us so hard” regarding denuclearization. The North’s unilateral cancellation of the inter-Korean talks -- which was to discuss improvement of inter-Korean relations -- and the warning to abort the Kim-Trump summit came after a series of hardline comments from senior US officials.
They made it clear that the US is seeking a different approach toward the North’s denuclearization this time. Top US officials made several media appearances this week to publicize the US government’s position.
In a sense, they could be taken as “last-minute” pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to accept denuclearization on US terms.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton took the lead to preach what the North should do. In short, what they mention is totally different to what Kim had said -- step-by-step denuclearization that is accompanied by simultaneous reciprocal rewards.
Most of all, the US wants a complete elimination of the North’s nuclear program. It specifically seeks to dismantle the North’s nuclear weapons and even relocate them to the US nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where 25 metric tons of nuclear equipment from Libya has been stored since 2004.
In addition, Bolton made it clear that the US also wants the North to get rid of chemical and biological weapons, as well as missiles. He added that North Koreans are going to have to reveal the locations of all related sites to allow “open inspection.”
Kim might have thought that he could not accept all those demands as they would leave him empty hands. Citing the North’s statement said that the “Max Thunder” drills between the allies’ air forces were a “rehearsal” for invasion of the North, some experts also point to the possibility that Kim was not satisfied with the South Korean and US proposal to guarantee its security.
Dissatisfaction with the proposed economic rewards could be another reason North Korea was backpedaling. While discussing the US goal of denuclearizing North Korea, both Bolton and Pompeo gave a glimpse of the US plan.
Bolton said that the US is ready to begin trade and investment with North Korea “as soon as we can” if the North implements complete denuclearization.
More specific proposals came from Pompeo, who met Kim in Pyongyang twice and who said that the US was prepared to work with the North to achieve prosperity “on the part with the South.”
Pompeo said that US private companies will be able to invest in North Korea in such areas as the energy grid, infrastructure and the agriculture sector.
But what should be noted is that both Bolton and Pompeo made it clear that the economic incentives the US is thinking about would come from the private sector.
Pompeo said that “what the US is offering is not taxpayer money, but know-how, knowledge, entrepreneurs, and risk-takers who will work with the North Koreans to help them create a robust economy.” In other words, the US will not provide any government-level aid and will leave the work to private companies and investors. It’s a typical Trumpian approach.
Again, we don’t know yet what is on Kim’s mind and what decision he will make eventually. One hope is that what Pompeo said early this week would prove right: “We’ve watched this fail before. But the model that has been employed here is fundamentally different, and we are hopeful that we will get a fundamentally different outcome.”