What to make of North Korea’s threats to cancel the Singapore summit
While it appears more likely than not that the Kim-Trump will go ahead, the DPRK is making clear negotiations won't be easy
On Wednesday, May 16, at 0030 KST, North Korea informed its South Korean counterparts that it would withdraw from an inter-Korean meeting planned for the same day, citing ongoing joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. In a subsequent report by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Pyongyang also suggested that it could retract its participation in an upcoming summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
Just hours later another message was issued: a statement by Kim Kye Gwan, the First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, condemned National Security Advisor John Bolton, explicitly rejecting CVID (Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization), and saying that Pyongyang might “reconsider” its participation in the summit.
The exercises mentioned in the first statement are codenamed “Max Thunder” and are annual joint drills between U.S. and South Korean air forces. They began on May 11, and are expected to last until May 25.
While the condemnation of a joint ROK-U.S. exercise is nothing new, the DPRK’s criticism is unexpected. Since the April inter-Korean summit, Pyongyang has generally refrained from criticizing the Moon administration. It is also the first time since the 2018 détente began that the North has used not only verbal criticism but also taken such strong steps to show its displeasure with Seoul.
Analysis of the available information and historical precedent suggest two possible interpretations for this behavior. The first is that Pyongyang’s statement is part of a bargaining process: the DPRK may want to see a reduction of a scale of the drills as a part of a future deal with Donald Trump, or may simply be projecting a tougher stance as the summit draws closer.
The second is that Pyongyang, ultimately, intends to withdraw from the summit in order not to be presented with a “CVID or war” ultimatum by the Americans. While the former option is more likely, the latter is also within the realms of possibility.
The recent détente
The DPRK statements are abrupt, coming as they do amid a broader atmosphere of détente and rapprochement on the peninsula. January saw Kim Jong Un advocate for inter-Korean rapprochement in his New Year speech. The following month, North Korean athletes participated in the Olympic Games and a North Korean delegation extended an invitation for the South Korean President to meet with Kim.
In March, a South Korean delegation announced that Kim wanted to meet with Donald Trump and that the U.S. President had agreed, and in April the Koreas agreed to install a communications hotline linking Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un’s offices. Following that, the North Korean leader announced a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests and on April 27, the third inter-Korean summit in history took place in Panmunjom.
The Kim-Trump summit, scheduled for June 12, was supposed to be a culmination of this peace process.
Meanwhile, there were hints that U.S.-North Korean negotiations were not going as smoothly as it appeared on the surface. On May 13, the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with CBS that “there is still a lot of work to do” and that the U.S. is “working on the details” of the summit, suggesting that at that time an agreement may not have been reached, despite the fact that Donald Trump had announced the date and the place of the meeting two days prior. Notably, this announcement was not echoed by the DPRK, whose state media only reported the fact that the Kim-Trump summit was being planned, not its time and place.
On the DPRK side, while the Rodong Sinmun and broader North Korean press has, in general, refrained from personally attacking Donald Trump in recent months, criticism of the United States has continued. Moreover, even during inter-Korean negotiations the DPRK occasionally criticized the South Korean administration – though until May 16 this was not followed by punitive actions.
The main case for canceling the meeting was, officially, the Max Thunder joint exercises and as a result, it’s useful to review North Korean views on these types of exercises.
The joint drills and the DPRK
The United States has been conducting joint drills with South Korea for decades and Pyongyang’s reaction has always been negative and defensive. In the DPRK, the exercises are called “exercises of aggression against the North” (북침전쟁연습) and the country often organized countermeasures of its own, such as firing missiles or testing weapons in response. The drills and Pyongyang’s negative responses to them are deeply ingrained in the country’s popular culture, with “White Jade” (백옥), one of the country’s most popular films, praising the main character, Marshal O Jin U, for his strong opposition to the drills.
This year the situation is slightly different, however. The first set of drills, codenamed Foul Eagle and Key Resolve, had been initially scheduled to take place during the Winter Olympics held in the South, but were postponed in order to facilitate a more peaceful atmosphere during the Olympics. They were later conducted as normal, with Kim Jong Un reportedly telling the South Korean side that he “understands the South’s stance” that they had to go ahead.
The drills were accompanied only by semi-official criticism from the DPRK, in an article in North Korean media signed by an individual – a tactic Pyongyang often uses when it wants to relay a message without it being formally announced by the state.
The Max Thunder drills began on May 11 and, for the first few days, did not provoke any negative response from the DPRK. Moreover, Pyongyang issued a statement inviting South Korean journalists to witness the closure of the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri after the drills had already begun. The DPRK’s decision to protest them at this time, it seems, is rooted in other concerns.
The first message
The DPRK informed Seoul of its decision to cancel the planned inter-Korean meeting at 0030, issuing a statement in the KCNA a few hours later. The same day, it was re-published on the bottom of the third page of the Rodong Sinmun. Not using the front page may suggest the DPRK is not giving the message a priority, but, on the other hand, the January 9 inter-Korean agreement was also published on page four of the newspaper.
Both events took place when the DPRK was trying to build better relations with South Korea, but simultaneously somewhat displeased with Seoul for negative media reports in January and for the drills in May.
Indeed, the level of criticism South Korea seems to be close (but not identical) to that of January. This time, the DPRK used quotations marks to refer to the ROK National Assembly: a gesture intending to stress the “illegitimate” nature of South Korean institutions that was universally used by the DPRK from 2008 to 2016 and is used to refer to right and centrist parties of the South. In January, in a similar gesture, the DPRK did not call Moon Jae-in “president”, instead referring to him as a “chief ruler” (최고집권자) of South Korea.
The message also accused the South of allowing the “worst human scum in the universe” to speak at the National Assembly: most likely a reference to former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho’s speech on May 14 – this accusation mirrors January’s demands for Seoul to control its press.
The major difference between the January accusations and the current situation is that this time the DPRK has resorted to action: the inter-Korean meeting was canceled and Washington was warned: “the U.S. should also consider its provocative military fuss they organize with South Korean authorities and think about the fate of the planned summit.”
South Korea has urged the DPRK to “immediately” return to inter-Korean dialogue. At the time of publication, this plea has received no response. The United States’ reaction has so far been calm, with a State Department spokesperson insisting that Washington will continue to prepare for the summit.
The second message
Hours later, the DPRK published a statement by Kim Kye Gwan, the country’s First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which Kim stated that the DPRK may reconsider its participation in the summit. The statement explicitly rejected the idea of the CVID, and warned that if the Trump administration “forces the abandonment of our nuclear arsenal unilaterally while driving us into the corner, we won’t have any interest in such dialogue.”
Furthermore, Kim Kye Gwan also made it clear that the DPRK is not interested in economic assistance from the United States: “The U.S. is clamoring that they will offer economic rewards and benefits if we abandon nuclear arsenal… we’ve never built our economy while having expectations on the U.S., and we will never make such deal.”
Both components of the statement were in direct contradiction with statements made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who earlier in the week suggested that the DPRK could receive massive investments from the United States in exchange for CVID. The statement was also specifically aimed at criticising U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, condemning his calls for CVID – a concept the statement explicitly rejected – and for his alleged desire to force the fate of Iraq and Libya on the DPRK.
Analysis suggests there are two likely explanations for Pyongyang’s behavior. The first is that the DPRK’s complaints are a bargaining tool. It is highly unlikely that North Korea truly sees the joint drills as a direct threat to their national security, given that they had been conducted for several days before its complaints were raised. It is possible that Pyongyang is testing the resolve of the United States and is trying to get a reduction in the scale of the drills in future negotiations.
The second possible explanation is that Pyongyang’s real desire is to cancel the summit under a believable pretext. The summit is viewed by some in the American establishment, including the current National Security Adviser John Bolton, as a means to deliver an ultimatum to the DPRK: accept CVID or see maximum pressure continue, an ultimatum Pyongyang would have no choice but to reject. In this scenario, it would be logical for the North to withdraw from the summit.
Kim Kye Gwan’s statement does lend credence to this theory: U.S. officials said that only thing which will satisfy Washington is the CVID and this statement is now explicitly rejected by Pyongyang leaving little space for compromises. The message also specifically criticised John Bolton, a major proponent of setting the summit as the means to deliver an ultimatum to North Korea.
But what appears more likely, for the time being at least, is that North Korea is carving out its position ahead of the talks: that it will not accept unilateral disarmament without serious concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. Pyongyang is likely to demand the reduction of – or even the elimination – of the joint U.S.-South Korean drills: long portrayed by the DPRK as a cornerstone of the U.S.’s “hostile policy” against it.
Following months of rapprochement, the North likely feels it necessary to let the U.S. know that negotiations are not going to be easy.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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