About the Author
View more articles by Jacob Fromer
Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
A high-ranking North Korean official who previously oversaw relations with the U.S. issued a statement on Thursday expressing hope that Washington and Pyongyang could restart their long-stalled diplomatic dialogue — and warned of “shocking punishment” if the U.S. goes through with a “hostile provocation” against the North.
The statement, attributed to Kim Yong Chol, a vice-chairman in the ruling party Central Committee and head of the DPRK’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC) — an official organization dealing with inter-Korean affairs that falls under the Workers’ Party United Front Department (UFD) — focused on an upcoming, annual joint military exercise with South Korea that the North vehemently opposes.
In his remarks, published by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Yong Chol appeared to be responding to comments on Wednesday by the U.S. defense secretary, Mark Esper, that Washington may decide to “adjust” its long-planned military drills in order to help spur diplomacy on with the North — and urged the American defense chief to stand by his word.
“I took note of the remark made by the U.S. secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Nov. 13 that he would adjust the U.S.-south Korea joint military drill for the progress of the DPRK-U.S. negotiations,” Kim Yong Chol said, according to KCNA.
“As the remark of the U.S. secretary of Defense was made just after the announcement of the statement of the spokesperson for the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK, I would like to understand it as the U.S. intention to drop out of the joint military drill or completely stop it.”
Earlier on Wednesday, hours before Esper’s comments, a spokesman for the North’s State Affairs Commission (SAC) — the highest-ranking state organ in the North Korean government — said the U.S.-South Korean military drills represent a “betrayal” and a “breach” of the 2018 Singapore agreement between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim Yong Chol’s statement appeared to place more blame on Seoul than on Washington for that alleged breach.
“I don’t think [Esper] made the decision after consulting with the south Korean authorities in advance,” Kim said, “because no one in the south Korean political circles can dare to make such a wise decision.”
“I would like to believe that the remark of the U.S. secretary of Defense reflected the intention of President Trump, and appreciate it as part of positive efforts of the U.S. side to preserve the motive force of the DPRK-U.S. negotiations,” Kim added.
“However, if this ends up with our naive interpretation and the hostile provocation is committed eventually to incite us, we will be compelled to answer with shocking punishment that would be difficult for the U.S. to cope with.”
Kim’s comments — both optimistic and ominous — were the latest in a busy 24 hours of public signaling from senior officials in Pyongyang about the status of diplomacy, relations with the U.S., and American military drills on the Korean peninsula.
Earlier on Thursday, the North’s top nuclear negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, issued a statement directed at Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, saying that the DPRK is “ready to meet with the U.S. at any place and any time” — but will not fall for a bad deal that fails to protect Pyongyang.
Also on Thursday, a commentary in KCNA referred to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden — now a Democratic presidential candidate competing to run against Donald Trump in next year’s election — as a “rabid dog.”
According to Sung-yoon Lee, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the North’s recent statements are likely part of a calculated effort in Pyongyang to force the Trump Administration to back away from military drills with Seoul — and, perhaps, ultimately leave the Korean peninsula altogether.
“North Korea’s bluster barrage this week is a coordinated pressure tactic, a year-end special ‘bait-and-switch sale,'” Lee told NK News. “North Korea’s merchandise is the illusion of denuclearization, while the ultimate price it charges is U.S. abandonment of South Korea.”
“With each faux transaction packaged as ‘diplomatic talks,’ North Korea complains of ‘US hostile policy,’ defrauding the U.S. into conceding more and more in terms of its military support for Seoul,” he said.
Even still, Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told NK News that Kim Yong Chol — deliberately or not — may be misreading the U.S. defense secretary’s intentions about the upcoming military drills.
“I think Kim Yong Chol is thinking wishfully here,” Pollack said, “if he really believes it’s a withdrawal.”
“Almost the same words were uttered by [former Defense Secretary] Mattis about a year ago concerning plans for exercises in the March-April 2019 timeframe, which were indeed held,” he said, adding, “the ‘modification’ in question seems to have been less publicity.”
Whatever the North’s intentions and beliefs, the clock continues to tick toward Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline for a deal with the United States — and according to Fletcher Professor Lee, the DPRK is likely paying close attention to not just their own timeline, but also Donald Trump’s.
“North Korea has a keen sense of timing and the political calendar in the U.S.,” Lee said.
“With the Trump impeachment hearings going on and Thanksgiving and year-end holidays just around the corner, Pyongyang is ramping up pressure and setting the stage for blaming the U.S. for the next big provocation — an ICBM or thermonuclear test in space — to come.”
“In North Korean politics,” he added, “nothing is ever improvised.”
Featured image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps