It may just be posturing, or another signal of dying diplomacy.
North Korea threatened to end diplomatic talks with the US as well as its moratorium on missile and nuclear tests — a provocative statement that could end a months-long period of relative harmony between the two nations.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said her nation’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was disappointed not to make a deal when he met President Donald Trump in Vietnam last month. That failure, according to many, occurred because of the Trump administration’s hardline position that North Korea must give up all of its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons before it receives any sanctions relief.
Both leaders walked away from the negotiating table, and the summit ended hours early. And now, it seems, Kim has lost patience with the process altogether.
“We have no intention to yield to the US demands in any form, nor are we willing to engage in negotiations of this kind,” Choe said. “On our way back to the homeland, our chairman of the state affairs commission [Kim] said, ‘For what reason do we have to make this train trip again?’”
Choe also mentioned that Kim would make an official announcement as to his stance on negotiations and weapons testing very soon, and that his relationship with Trump remains “still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful.”
North Korea has played hardball with the US since the Vietnam summit’s collapse. Stephen Biegun, America’s envoy for North Korea negotiations, traveled to the United Nations on Thursday to meet with Security Council representatives. He asked to meet with North Korea’s ambassador to the world body while he was there, but the ambassador didn’t respond to Biegun’s request, according to two people familiar with the situation. The State Department didn’t return a request for comment.
It seems that the talks are in a precarious position, and Choe’s comments didn’t improve matters. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, seems undeterred. “She left open the possibility that negotiations will continue for sure,” he told reporters on Friday, referring to North Korea’s vice minister. “It’s the administration’s desire that we continue to have conversations around this.”
Still, North Korea’s threat comes at a precarious time. Satellite images show that Pyongyang may be preparing to launch a space vehicle in the coming weeks. While not a missile or nuclear bomb, launching a space rocket could be seen as highly provocative by the United States.
But Trump has so far cited the lack of any testing as a major victory. “I just don’t want testing. As long as there’s no testing, we’re happy,” he said in February, days before his summit with Kim.
A space launch, though, could make Trump unhappy — thereby possibly putting both countries back on the path to war.
Why North Korea made this threat now
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean affairs, told me there are two main reasons Kim would want his regime to make such a provocative statement.
First, North Korea wants to put the blame for the failure in Vietnam at America’s feet. That makes Kim look better and could signal to his allies, mainly China, that he was willing to negotiate until the US made such a hardline demand.
“By floating a threat in a negative but circumspect way, North Korea is both testing the reaction to this type of messaging and putting pressure on Washington,” Oba said.
And second, there are North Korean officials who are skeptical of holding diplomatic talks with the United States. While Kim commands much power in his country, he still faces some domestic political challenges. “It’s possible that because of what happened in Hanoi … hardliners in Pyongyang are feeling empowered and Kim is in a position where he has to demonstrate strength,” Oba added.
The new North Korean stance comes just days after Biegun told a Washington audience that the Trump administration won’t “do denuclearization incrementally,” adding that “the foundation of US policy is denuclearization.” That reversed the administration’s pre-Hanoi stance that it would make reciprocal, smaller deals with North Korea until it finally parted with its nuclear arsenal.
It’s unclear if US-North Korea talks are officially doomed, or if this is just old-school posturing by the Kim regime. But if neither side can find a way to get back on course, the result could be far worse than a few choice words.
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