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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has not yet revealed his “final judgment” about the fate of his country’s negotiations with the U.S., but President Donald Trump would be wise to stop offending him in the meantime, a senior official warned on Monday.
The statement, from Ri Su Yong, one of the highest-ranked members the ruling Workers’ Party — Ri oversees the party’s foreign policy decisions — was the second response of the day from Pyongyang after Trump tweeted on Sunday that the DPRK has “everything” to lose if diplomacy fails.
Earlier on Monday, Ri’s colleague Kim Yong Chol, one of the country’s top diplomats, told the U.S. President in a statement that, actually, North Korea has “nothing more to lose.”
The back-and-forth comes with three weeks remaining until the last day of 2019 — and with it, the last chance to reach an agreement before Kim Jong Un’s declared year-end deadline for diplomacy arrives.
“It seems that Trump is very anxious to know what we are thinking of now,” said Ri Su Yong, the vice-chairman of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). “He feels very fretful about what will be done by us.”
“The recent words and expressions spouted one after another by Trump sound like a threat to someone at a glance but they are a corroboration that he feels fear inside,” he continued.
“Trump might be in great jitters but he had better accept the status quo that as he sowed, so he should reap, and think twice if he does not want to see bigger catastrophic consequences.”
Last week, Trump told reporters that he is still willing to use military force against North Korea if necessary — despite his “really good” relationship with Kim Jong Un.
The U.S. commander in chief also revived his “Rocket Man” nickname for Kim, which leadership in Pyongyang reacted to by referring to Trump, once again, as a “dotard.”
Those names were a prominent feature of the pre-diplomacy era, when the two countries were threatening to wage war against each other.
The new wave of epithets, insults, and threats marks a sharp turn from just over two months ago, when Trump and Kim sent senior envoys to Sweden for a rare face-to-face diplomatic meeting and the world watched to see if the two adversarial nations would actually be able to strike a meaningful deal.
The Stockholm talks ended with no deal, however — the two sides have been unable to agree on sanctions relief, the fate of the North’s nuclear program, and the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula — and the diplomatic momentum quickly slowed to a halt.
In recent days, the weeks-long stalemate finally appears to have broken — but this time, the U.S.-DPRK relationship seems to be moving in a different direction: one of impatience and distrust.
Over the weekend, North Korea conducted what it called a “very important” test at a satellite launch facility, though it is still unclear what, precisely, they tested.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that the “best path forward” with Pyongyang is still diplomacy, and that a political agreement is “still our hope.”
But, he added, “If you don’t have hope, then what? You fall back into a war footing.”
The same day, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, said that denuclearization is now “already gone out of the negotiating table.”
One day later, the U.S. National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, said that the U.S. has “plenty of tools in the toolkit” for dealing with the DPRK if it does not denuclearize.
According to Ri Su Yong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is still undecided about how he will deal with the United States if there is no deal yet when the year comes to a close.
“Our final judgment and decision which will soon be made at the end of this year are to be done by the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, and he has neither clarified any stand yet nor made any ironic and irritating expressions toward the other party as done by someone,” Ri said, according to KCNA.
(Chairman of the State Affairs Commission is one of Kim Jong Un’s titles.)
“Trump would be well advised to quit abusive language which may further offend the Chairman,” Ri said.
One expert told NK News that if President Trump wants to change Pyongyang’s behavior, his recent statements are unlikely to get him there.
“Trump is putting North Korea on the spot in exactly the wrong way,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official working on North Korea.
“Instead of forcing Pyongyang to react to a public U.S. proposal that puts the onus on North Korea to demonstrate good faith, he is mixing tough talk backed up by very little combined with condescending words about Kim Jong Un himself, pushing North Korea to respond in kind,” he said.
Despite the new, tense rise in threats, however, North Korean leadership does still seem to be undecided about what should come next in its relationship with Washington, according to Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
But, she told NK News, that clock is ticking fast.
“This is more tactical posturing, rather than a strategic statement, aimed at pressuring the U.S. into changing its position by the end of the year,” said Lee.
“It is notable, however, that Ri seems to be the highest-level individual to issue a press statement on the U.S. thus far, and that Ri is also the director of the party’s International Department, which oversees North Korea’s foreign policy-making,” she added.
“The attribution to Ri seems aimed at underscoring the message that Kim has yet to express his final decision on foreign policy, and that Trump must act quickly.”
Featured image: KCNA