In the last 24 hours, the narrative about the upcoming summit between Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, has pivoted from upbeat speculation of a grand diplomatic breakthrough between the two Koreas and the United States, to a ominous mass of clouds on the horizon.
On Tuesday, North Korea’s state information ministry, KCNA (Korean Central News Agency) issued a statement in reaction to the commencement of the U.S.- South Korean joint military exercise named “Max Thunder” :
“This exercise targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula. The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities”.
Consecutive to this announcement, came a statement from Kim Kye Gwan, first Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, “If [the Trump administration] only pushes us into a corner and forces us to give up our nuclear weapons unilaterally, then we will no longer take interest in such a talk and would have to reconsider whether to participate in the upcoming North Korea-US talks.”
Joint military exercises and drills such as Max Thunder have been a fairly regular event on an annual basis. This iteration featured B-52 bombers, scores of F-15K fighter jets and eight F-22 stealth tactical fighters.
Kim provided a partial indication of the ostensible factors behind the shift in plans, indicating that he and his government are recoiling at the posture of Trump’s newly appointed National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
Bolton’s use of the term, the “Libya model” of nuclear abandonment and Bolton’s recent comments that the peace agreement would make “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” a non-negotiable requisite of any agreement emerging out of the upcoming talks, are causing North Korea more than a slight bit of indigestion.
Kim issued this statement through KCNA:
“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister moves to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had [sic] been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”
Bolton, in one of his appearances on the Sunday discussion shows, spelled out that any final arrangement with the North Korean regime would include, “getting rid of all the nuclear weapons, dismantling them, taking them to Oakridge, Tennessee. It means getting rid of the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities.”
As a confirmation that the Trump administration is in perpetual chaos and daily adding to the screenplay for the remake of “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight”, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders undercut Bolton’s comments:
“I haven’t seen that that’s a specific thing. I know that that comment was made. There’s not a cookie-cutter model on how this would work. This is the President Trump model. He’s going to run this the way he sees fit. We’re 100% confident, as we’ve said many times before, as I’m sure you’re all aware, he’s the best negotiator and we’re very confident on that front.”
What specifically is going on with this, beyond the public statements from North Korea, is a matter of widespread speculation.
Some see the North Koreans putting the status of the talks in doubt, as part of a strategy to keep Trump and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo off balance.
Others suspect that Kim, together with top level officials in North Korea have had too much time to reflect on the disadvantages of surrendering a nuclear arms program that took a quarter of a century to develop the capabilities that culminated in the acquisition of as many as 60 warheads and three tested delivery platforms.
It would also be an oversight to discount the impression that was rendered by Trump’s illogical withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear accord, given the fact that nuclear experts are all in agreement that Iran was abiding with the core of the pact, permitting regular and spot inspections of it’s nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Beyond all of this, there are those who think that the spectacle of the rapprochement outreach from North Korea that began in February, was just theater intended to buy time for Kim to relocate his collapsed nuclear testing site to another location.
Whatever the merit of those hypotheses, there is another X factor involved that cannot be ignored – China. Kim made a visit to China shortly after the structural cave-in of the Punggye-Ri test site, and the subsequent gestures towards a thaw in relations with South Korea seemed to be more than coincidental. Kim made a second visit to China a little over a week ago and again met with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
It’s quite possible that China has also re-calibrated its attitude toward the peace summit and that Xi may have instructed Kim to sideline the negotiations as a bartering chip in his trade talks with the United States. That is not an unrealistic assessment, given the fact that North Korea and the Kim dynasty have always served in the role of pawns in China’s foreign policy chess game with the West.
Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Nanjing University says that “China is trying to exert its influence. If the United States continues to adopt a hostile attitude against China, then China may readjust its North Korea policy.”
What is the bottom line at this point? It is that the likelihood of Trump emerging from any talks with North Korea and Kim Jong-un – if such meetings even take place, with a commitment by Kim to fully denuclearize, are extremely unlikely.
“The original conflict of interests endures,” said Van Jackson, a strategy fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and a former U.S. Department of Defense adviser. “The bottom line is that Kim isn’t going to give up nukes, and the reason is pessimism; it’s that North Korea has no theory of its own security without nukes.”