With the turbulent diplomacy and summitry of the past few months leading up to Tuesday’s Trump-Kim summit, the headlines have sometimes felt like they are repeating themselves. “The summit is off,” “The summit is on,” “Kim Jong Un meets X,” “Y condemns Z.” Negotiation teams are meeting in – where? Singapore? The DMZ? Wait, which secret summit was that?
Barring a secret meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the eve of the official June 12 summit, the main event is finally set to begin at 0900 local time June 12 at the Capella Hotel, on a small island on the southern tip of the small island city-state of Singapore.
Way back on March 8, news of the summit was first provided by a South Korean official during a visit to to the U.S., where National Security Office (NSO) chief Chung Eui-yong announced that his team had delivered a message from Kim Jong Un and that Trump had accepted the idea.
Chung said that Kim had “expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible” and that Trump responded by saying he would meet the North Korean leader “by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.”
And it appeared that plans for the Trump-Kim meeting were still on track when Kim Jong Un crossed the South Korean border to hold a separate landmark third inter-Korean summit with President Moon Jae-in on April 27.
A few days later during a press conference outside the White House alongside visiting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Trump raised Singapore as a possible site for the summit, while also suggesting the South Korean side of Panmunjom along the DMZ.
Amid increasing assurances from North Korea over their commitment to denuclearization in state media and from Kim Jong Un himself during a meeting on May 3 with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, Trump hinted that the summit was set to go ahead, and that he would release more information soon.
Then on May 10, Trump finally officially announced through his Twitter account that the summit would take place on June 12 in Singapore, saying he and Kim would try to make the “highly anticipated meeting… a very special moment for World Peace!”
But comments made by Trump’s new National Security Advisor John Bolton during a Fox News interview on April 29 may have set up a series of events that would lead to Trump’s sudden cancellation of the summit.
SIGNS OF TURBULENCE
During that interview, Bolton said regarding the U.S. strategy for North Korea’s denuclearization that they “have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004.”
Bolton also said he thought “the maximum pressure campaign that the Trump administration has put on North Korea has, along with the political military pressure, has brought us to this point.”
In the time between the Moon-Kim summit and Trump’s May 10 announcement, North Korean media offered typical criticisms of the U.S., warning that raising human rights issues were considered “unacceptable ridicule and ludicrous slander.”
But another op-ed may have been the first hint that Bolton’s remarks were a problem for North Korea.
A May 7 article in state outlet Uriminzokkiri criticized the U.S. – possibly referencing Bolton’s interview – for crediting their ‘maximum pressure’ campaign as the reason the Kim-Moon talks went ahead, saying the U.S. should refrain from “making statements and behaviors which spoil the atmosphere for dialogue.”
Kim Jong Un’s surprise second visit in as many months to China on May 8 to meet with President Xi Jinping could have also been a sign of the coming downward turn in summit preparations.
But with North Korea agreeing to release three American citizens and confirming their support for the summit during a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on May 9, and then Trump announcing the summit details the following day, everything was, at least outwardly, still moving forward.
Another positive sign came on May 12, North Korea’s foreign ministry officially confirmed its plans to destroy the country’s “northern nuclear test ground” at Punggye-ri later in the month.
The first obvious sign of trouble came on May 15, when North Korea abruptly canceled high-level talks at Panmunjom scheduled for the same day with South Korea and threatened to cancel the summit with Trump, citing the joint U.S.-ROK “Max Thunder” military exercises as one reason.
The North also took issue with a speech by high-profile defector Thae Yong-ho the previous day, criticizing the South for “allowing even human scum to brazenly hurl mud at the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK… in front of the building of the ‘National Assembly.’”
North Korean first Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan added to the criticisms in an article the following day, calling out Bolton by name for his “Libya model” remarks: “We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him.”
Then on May 17, Ri Son Gwon – Chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country – appeared to place responsibility for the breakdown in talks back at the South, asking them to “take a responsible measure” and resolve inter-Korean issues before meeting again.
With tensions rising again between the North and its negotiating partners, Trump seemingly sought to rebut Bolton’s comments, saying at the White House also on May 17 that “the Libya model isn’t a model we have at all.”
But he appeared to have quickly turned back to a tougher stance, adding that the ‘Libya model’ ended in “total decimation” for Muammar Gaddafi and that the same would happen to North Korea “if we don’t make a deal.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence offered similar comments on May 21, saying in a Fox News interview that “this will only end like the Libya Model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal.”
Amid this war of words, South Korean President Moon Jae-in traveled to Washington the following day to discuss summit plans with Trump, where he also held talks with both Pompeo and Bolton.
North Korea responded through vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui on May 24, who in a KCNA article called Pence’s comments “ignorant and stupid” and said that U.S. behavior could lead to either a summit or a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
Trump swiped back in his surprise announcement later the same day (Thursday morning in Washington) officially cancelling the summit, explicitly blaming his decision on “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement” – a clear reference to Choe Son Hui’s remarks.
The Washington Post reported, citing a source familiar with the conversations, that the decision may have come after Bolton showed Trump Choe’s remarks the night before and advised him to consider it a sign of North Korea’s sly maneuvering.
Just hours before the sudden cancellation, the North had been receiving foreign journalists – including Americans – as it prepared to carry out a promise it made weeks earlier to demolish their “northern nuclear test site.”
That apparent concession was not, however, without controversy, as the group of journalists from the U.S., UK, Russia, and China boarded their flight from Beijing on May 22 to the east coast North Korean city of Wonsan without the South Korean journalists originally invited to join.
But the next day, as the group of foreign journalists waited for word on their departure for the nuclear test site, the South Korean journalists finally arrived to join them, after which the entire group boarded a train that evening.
With announcements of the successful demolition by the North Korean government and the visiting press the following day on May 24, it appeared that things were well on track for the North’s improving relations with the U.S. and South Korea – that is until Trump announced the summit’s cancellation just hours later.
Trump’s decision set off a frenzy of reactions, the most notable of which came from North Korea less than 12 hours later on May 25.
SURPRISINGLY TEMPERED RESPONSE
The statement from Kim Kye Gwan – the official who may have been partly responsible for setting off the downturn of the previous week through his comments about Bolton – was uncharacteristically tempered, seeking to reset rather than escalate.
In it, he called the sudden cancellation “very regretful” and said the summit was “acutely necessary for the improvement” of their relations with the U.S., leaving the door open for restarting summit negotiations.
Trump responded on the same day by revealing that the two sides had resumed talks and that the summit might not be canceled after all.
Fears of a return to military tensions as a result of Trump’s cancellation were further calmed the following day, with the surprise second summit between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un on May 26 – this time on the North Korean side of Panmunjom.
The meeting mostly served to reiterate the points of the Panmunjom Agreement signed between the two a month earlier, putting inter-Korean talks back on track but also resulting in the quick resumption of official talks between the U.S. and the DPRK.
President Moon the next day told reporters that while Kim Jong Un was still committed to denuclearization, he was also still concerned about the U.S. military threat along the road – a point which Kim Kye Gwan made clear in his response to the summit cancellation.
The question of the timing and process of denuclearization would become a primary theme over the following weeks in the run-up to the June 12 summit, with the North insisting on its ‘own timetable’ as three different and sometimes concurrent sets of negotiations kicked off between the U.S. and North Korea in addition to continuing inter-Korean talks and the North’s own diplomatic marathon.
TALKS ABOUT TALKS
The first U.S.-DPRK negotiations, led by current Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim for the U.S. and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui for the North, began talks on the northern side of Panmunjom on May 27, which Trump said were intended to “make arrangements for the Summit.”
The U.S. sent a second team led by White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Joe Hagin to Singapore a day earlier, who reportedly met with Kim Jong Un’s chief secretary Kim Chang Son throughout the following days to discuss logistics and practical matters surrounding the summit, though the June 12 date had not yet been officially re-confirmed.
The third and most high-level talks began in New York on May 31 between Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong Chol, one of North Korea’s top officials. The two had also held talks during both of Pompeo’s trips to North Korea in the preceding months.
Meanwhile, North Korea was carrying out its own diplomatic push in preparation for the summit.
Following a different surprise second summit – the one on May 8 between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in Dalian – Kim continued to build up goodwill by receiving Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Pyongyang on May 31.
Kim and Lavrov reportedly discussed economic issues as well as sanctions, with Lavrov siding firmly with Pyongyang and claiming that denuclearization cannot be carried out successfully while sanctions remain in place.
BACK ON: THE FINAL FLURRY
With both the U.S. and North Korea continuing summit preparations, Trump finally confirmed the originally scheduled June 12 date after a meeting in Washington with Kim Yong Chol, who had traveled down to meet with Trump in the White House following two days of talks with Pompeo.
Events slowed down in the ensuing week-and-a-half, as all sides continued to work behind the scenes to strengthen their support and prepare to produce to some sort of agreement through the talks in Singapore.
Trump has kept the focus on denuclearization and even said human rights were not raised during his meeting with Kim Yong Chol, leading to an increase in calls from rights groups to put the issue back on the table.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe also visited Washington on June 7 to make a last-ditch effort to get his abductee issue back on Trump’s agenda.
But the only thing certain at this point is that Trump and Kim will meet Tuesday morning to begin their face-to-face talks.
And now, with both leaders in Singapore preparing for the main event, those following the ups and downs of the previous few months will have to wait just a little longer to find out what the two countries can produce from this entire process.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA (left), Dan Scavino Jr. (right), edited by NK News
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