Why North Korea Could Still Sit Down With the U.S.

5 MINS READMay 16, 2018 | 19:33 GMT
A man walks past a TV showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump at a railway station in Seoul on May 16.
(JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Bluster from North Korea indicates that it could reconsider a summit with the United States, but the rhetoric might merely be negotiating ploy.

Stratfor's geopolitical guidance provides insight on what we're watching out for in the week ahead.

With its sudden rebuke of the United States and South Korea, North Korea has made it clear it will not accept the hard-line U.S. position on denuclearization and even hinted that it may pull out of a June 12 summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The Big Picture

In its second-quarter forecast, Stratfor said North Korea would alternate between punitive measures and overtures to Seoul in the hopes of maintaining leverage over Washington, even as it extends a hand of diplomacy to the South. Stratfor also noted the challenges in squaring the U.S. and North Korean positions on nuclear weapons. Pyongyang's sudden cancellation of a high-level meeting with Seoul, as well as its defiance of the United States' hard-line position, is a clear expression of these challenges.

What Happened?

Amid hopeful diplomatic signs and concessions, North Korea expressed its vociferous opposition to U.S. and South Korean actions twice this week. Speaking through its state-run Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang first condemned the U.S.-South Korean Max Thunder military drills while also canceling a planned gathering between Korean officials intended to implement measures from the recent inter-Korean summit. According to the statement, the planned participation of U.S. F-22 fighters and B-52 bombers is a violation of the Panmunjom Declaration signed at the summit. The second condemnation came directly from North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who warned that North Korea would have to reconsider whether to agree to a landmark summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if Washington pushes for a one-sided deal on denuclearization. The statement specifically condemned National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as the official's suggestion that Libya could provide a model for disarmament in North Korea and that the United States would make no concessions until Pyongyang completely destroys its nuclear weapons.

Responding to the North Korean threat to scuttle the Trump-Kim summit, the White House downplayed the parallels to Libya, claiming it had no plans to pursue an old model but would forge a new "Trump Model." The U.S. president, however, said he would still insist on denuclearization. The United States also followed up on the North Korean statement regarding the Max Thunder drills by emphasizing the defensive nature of the military drills amid leaks from South Korea that seemed to suggest the U.S. military may not deploy B-52s as planned, although the Pentagon later denied the news.

The Background

U.S. and North Korean officials have engaged in backroom talks regarding the Trump-Kim summit. North Korea has given concessions by releasing U.S. detainees and setting a date for the dismantling of its nuclear test site. However, all is not amicable: Leaks from talks between the two sides indicate an unsurprising difference on positions, as North Korea has pushed for a phased, long-term deal on its weapons program that would periodically reward progress, while the United States is pushing for a rapid timeline that would only provide compensation at the end. Pyongyang's decision to cancel the inter-Korean summit also mirrors past North Korean criticism — which came even amid the 2018 diplomatic warming. North Korea's announcement on May 15 did not come out of the blue but echoed a Foreign Ministry statement from May 6 that exhorted the United States to end military threats and its maximum pressure campaign against Pyongyang while citing the "strategic assets" deployed on the peninsula — an oblique reference to the F-22s that had arrived on May 2 to participate in the Max Thunder drills. This escalation in rhetoric is clearly intended to demonstrate to Washington and Seoul that Pyongyang means business.

Why It Matters

North Korea's bluster is part of a tactic to stake out a position ahead of the summit with Trump. The particular shape of the position that each adopts — as well as how far each side is willing to bend and extend its trust — will determine whether the summit ushers in greater rapprochement or leads to a breakdown and return to 2017's war of words. The latest statement from North Korea is not a make-or-break moment but simply represents one of Pyongyang's many negotiating tactics — one delivered in typical North Korean fashion with high rhetoric and a flair for the dramatic. Ultimately, Pyongyang is making it clear that it will not abandon its nuclear deterrent without receiving concessions in return.

What We're Watching For

  • Reaction from South Korea and China: At their trilateral summit with Japan, the two aligned clearly on their preference for concessions to North Korea. Tokyo, by contrast, favored pressure. Neither Seoul or Beijing expects rapid denuclearization and will work to maintain the dialogue while providing some room for North Korea to maneuver.
  •  How the White House positions Bolton in the talks: Washington could urge Bolton to tone down his hard-line rhetoric in public.
  • U.S. and South Korean actions: Washington and Seoul could change some of the deployments during the Max Thunder drills as a sign of goodwill.
  • The fate of high-level inter-Korean meetings.

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