The buildup to the planned June 12 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has been thrown into uncertainty, with the North Koreans now threatening to cancel. The statement from North Korea came just hours after it nixed a planned high-level meeting Wednesday between North and South Korean officials at the DMZ. North Korean media says the cancellation was due to a massive joint military exercise called Max Thunder being staged by U.S. and South Korean troops. The North Korean regime despises exercises like this, viewing them as threatening provocations or even rehearsals for an invasion. But still, Max Thunder has been planned for months, and while the U.S. and South Korea did delay planned military exercises during the Winter Olympics, there’s been no public discussion of a permanent freeze. This can’t have been a surprise.
That hasn’t stopped North Korean first vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan from accusing the U.S. of trying to “drive us into a corner.” In a press statement, Kim said, “prior to the DPRK-U.S. summit, unbridled remarks provoking the other side of dialogue are recklessly made in the U.S. and I am totally disappointed as these constitute extremely unjust behavior.” He specifically took aim at National Security Adviser John Bolton and his “assertions of so-called Libya mode of nuclear abandonment.”
In several interviews, Bolton has cited former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s 2003 decision to abandon his nascent nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief as a model for the “complete denuclearization” of North Korea.* As Bolton well knows, North Korea has specifically cited the Libya example as a reason why it should pursue a nuclear deterrent: 11 years after giving up his weapons program, Qaddafi was lying dead in a roadside ditch following a Western military intervention. It’s hard to imagine a choice of precedent from Bolton that would raise more red flags with the North Koreans.
Of course, that may be exactly why Bolton cited it. Bolton has advocated pre-emptive military action against North Korea and has sounded highly skeptical about the recent diplomatic opening. In an interview with Radio Free Asia just before Trump hired him, Bolton said he suspected the North Koreans were merely “buying time to perfect the last stages of the nuclear weapons program and their ballistic missile program” and was “skeptical that they’re serious.” Unless Kim were willing to commit to complete denuclearization, it could be a “very short meeting” with Trump, Bolton said. Bolton is smart enough to know that, in spite of his recent overtures, Kim does not actually intend to just hand over his nuclear weapons, at least not right away, and this week’s statements make that abundantly clear.
Bolton upped the ante again over the weekend, telling CNN that in addition to denuclearization, the talks would encompass North Korea’s ballistic missile program, its chemical and biological weapons, and other issues including the abductions of South Korean and Japanese citizens. He suggested the talks could result in North Korea becoming “a normal nation, to behave and interact with the rest of the world the way that South Korea does,” which could be read in Pyongyang, given Bolton’s record, as a suggestion of regime change. It was also, as Fred Kaplan points out, at odds with comments made the same day by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggesting that North Korea might be allowed to keep its nuclear weapons if it gets rid of the long-range missiles that could strike the United States.
So, a national security adviser who seems to view these talks as a dangerous waste of valuable time has been making statements that seem perfectly tailored to either scuttle the talks or make meaningful progress at them impossible. Judging by North Korea’s outburst this week, the strategy—if that’s what it is—is working. The White House says it is still hopeful that the meeting will happen, but one might ask why Bolton is the person Trump chose to advise him before he took on this ambitious and highly risky diplomatic project.
Correction, May 17: This post originally stated that Muammar Qaddafi had agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2000. It was 2003.