War Stories

Kim in Control

North Korea’s threat to abandon the Trump summit isn’t an about-face. It’s a demonstration of who’s in the driver’s seat.

Kim Jong-un sitting in a chair and smiling.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the the Inter-Korean Summit on April 27 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

North Korea’s threat to cancel the upcoming summit with President Trump is not an “about-face” or a return to a Pyongyang “playbook that includes sudden shifts in tactics when negotiating with other nations,” as some commentators have charged.

The Kim dynasty, which has ruled North Korea since its founding just after World War II, has indeed indulged in abrupt shifts, backpedaling, and other acts of deception and deceit in many diplomatic forums over the decades. But this threat is not one of them. Rather, it is entirely consistent with statements that Kim Jong-un and his aides have made for weeks—and, apart from its cantankerous tone, fairly reasonable even by the standards of a “normal” nation.

Ever since the topic of a Trump-Kim summit came up, North Korean officials have clearly stated that the goal of any deal should be the “de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula” (not of just North Korea) and that it should be enforced through “phased, synchronous measures” (gradual, simultaneous concessions by each side over a long period of time).

Neither Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has twice visited Kim in Pyongyang in the run-up to the scheduled June 12 meeting in Singapore, has endorsed these conditions. In recent days, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, has rejected them. In TV interviews, he has talked of dismantling only North Korea’s nuclear weapons—as well as its ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, and various other installations—and has said that, after this disarming, the United States would lavish the country with economic aid and investment. Bolton also likened the process he had in mind to Libya’s abandonment of nuclear weapons in 2004.

By contrast, North Korea has long defined de-nuclearization as applying to all nuclear-capable forces on the peninsula, which would include many U.S. forces in and near South Korea. And, in his statement on Wednesday, Kim Kye-Gwan, North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, denounced Bolton’s “Libya model” as “absolutely absurd.”

I wouldn’t often say this, but Kim Kye-gwan—who is North Korea’s longtime senior negotiator on nuclear and other matters—is correct.

For one thing, Libya got rid of its nuclear program, agreeing to ship all of the components to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, well before its scientists had built a single bomb or warhead. By contrast, North Korea has built and tested several nuclear weapons and the missiles that might carry them. For another, as the vice minister put it, Libya met a “miserable fate,” as its president, Muammar Qaddafi, was killed in a Western-supported ouster not long after he threw away his nukes.

Anyone looking at Libya’s example, as well as that of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, would be stupid to disarm in exchange for mere assurances of economic aid—or, as the vice minister put it, to abandon nuclear weapons first, get compensated afterward. Whatever else Kim Jong-un and Kim Kye-gwan may be, they are not stupid.

Bolton’s remarks, the vice minister continued, are “not an expression of intent to address the issue through dialogue” but rather “an awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq,” which “collapsed” under the pressure of “big powers.” Ludicrous rhetoric aside, Kim has a point.

He then expressed North Korea’s desire for “sound dialogue and negotiations,” leading to “de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula”—not a tactical shift but a restatement of a long-held position—and warned, “If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to face our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the … summit.” This too is a not-unreasonable position to hold.

Anyone who knows anything about North Korea has long warned that Kim Jong-un would not give up his nuclear arsenal—certainly not for assurances of aid or any other concession, after the fact, and probably not under any exchange whatsoever. Trump may not know this, but Bolton certainly does; before taking the White House job, he said on Fox News, where he was a frequent guest commentator, that he hoped the summit with Kim would fail quickly, so the United States could get on with a military campaign against Kim’s regime and possibly a first strike against his nuclear facilities, which, he argued, was both legal and necessary.

Experts disagree over what Kim’s motives might have been in calling for a summit in the first place; but, from the Kim dynasty’s beginnings, a key strategy has been to play the large powers, which surround and threaten the regime, off one another—and, in particular, to weaken ties between the United States and its allies in the region, mainly South Korea but also, if possible, Japan.

By making demands that any knowledgeable observer knows Kim would never accept, Trump is playing into this strategy. If the summit is canceled or ends badly, Kim will claim that he made a sincere overture, proposing measures (“phased and synchronous”) that are consistent with many global negotiations (including several involving the United States), but that Trump was unreasonable. He will then proceed to campaign for a separate peace with South Korea—which its president, Moon Jae-in, may find irresistible, especially if Trump sticks to Bolton’s position.

On Wednesday, shortly after the release of Vice Minister Kim’s statement, Trump officials brushed aside its threat, saying that they hoped the summit would take place but if it didn’t, so be it. This not only misreads North Korea’s position but also heightens the risks that Trump took when he agreed to the summit and then did nothing to prepare for it. He has raised expectations so loftily, even saying publicly that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for merely helping to bring the summit about. Some Republicans also hope that a deal of some sort—almost any sort—might also boost the party’s prospects in this fall’s midterms. Many fear that he has grown so desperate for a deal that he might prefer a bad deal to no meeting at all.

This too might be one piece of the strategy behind the vice minister’s statement: to peel Trump away from Bolton, who has long been hostile to the Kim regime and who seems, in his own recent statements, to be sabotaging the summit’s prospects. If the summit falls through, Trump will likely find it impossible to resume his “fire and fury” threats to wage war on North Korea—not after the newly minted détente between North and South Korea, not if Moon has anything to say about it, and he certainly does, given the possibility that a war could kill hundreds of thousands of his own people.

In any case, it is now clearer than ever that Kim Jong-un is in the driver’s seat when it comes not only to this summit but to U.S.-North Korean relations generally—and to the complex of relations involving South Korea and China as well. This was the underlying theme of his vice minister’s statement: North Korea is a nuclear power, and no one can change that with boastful fantasies.

Trump has fallen into this trap. First, he craved the glory of striking the ultimate deal without doing what real dealmakers do before taking a gamble—studying the situation, the risks, and the other player. Second, he let the other player—a clever but piddling dictator of an impoverished rogue state—shape the game and define the rules.