Kim threatens to cancel Trump meet

North Korea not to give up nuclear weapons until US removes military threats

By Choe Sang-Hun and Jane Perlez in Seoul
  • Published 17.05.18
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo (left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on May 9, 2018. (Reuters)

Seoul: For months, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has been unexpectedly conciliatory towards South Korea and the US, announcing a halt to nuclear and missile tests even as the two countries staged military exercises that the North sees as a rehearsal for invasion.

Then on Wednesday, North Korea showed its true colours. It said Kim's government would not give up its nuclear weapons unless Washington removed military threats against his isolated country. Without such assurances, it said Kim could withdraw from a planned June 12 summit meeting with President Trump in Singapore.

"North Korea wanted to show that threatening to walk away from a meeting is a negotiating tactic it has mastered long before President Trump did," said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.

The White House brushed aside threats by North Korea on Wednesday , saying it was still "hopeful" the meeting will happen - but that Trump would be fine if it did not.

"The President is ready if the meeting takes place," Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told Fox News on Wednesday. "And if it doesn't, we will continue the maximum pressure campaign that has been ongoing." White House officials said they were taking North Korea's latest warnings in stride, in part because Kim, not Trump, had sought the meeting.

If North Korea's tough statements on Wednesday caught officials in Seoul and Washington off guard, they also reflected a well-established North Korean stance.

Even as he has recently reached out to Washington and Seoul for dialogue, Kim has repeatedly said he would denuclearise his country only if it no longer felt "threatened militarily" by such exercises as the "Max Thunder" Air Force drills underway now between the US and South Korea.

He has also demanded "security guarantees" from the US, and said his country wants to enter talks with Washington as an equal nuclear power.

"The last thing Kim Jong-un can afford is to look like he is surrendering his nuclear weapons," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "Countries need to help North Korea find a way to disarm itself in a face-saving way."

North Korea grew nervous that it might look weak by making unilateral concessions, like the missile-test moratorium and its decision to shut down its nuclear test site, while the US has not matched them with its own concessions and only vowed to keep up its maximum pressure," Koh said.

Few analysts said the North would ultimately go so far as to cancel the Singapore meeting. Rather, the threat to withdraw was an attempt to raise the price that Washington would have to pay to get any significant concessions on the North's nuclear programme, analysts said.

"The goal is to change the subject from what the US wants to talk about - denuclearisation - to Pyongyang's preferred focus: US military exercises, the US 'threat' and by extension the US-South Korea alliance," said Evans J.R. Revere, who directed Korean policy at the state department.

North Korea's abrupt change in tone began on Wednesday when it indefinitely postponed high-level talks with South Korea, blaming the joint military drills with the US that began last week.

New York Times News Service