Kim Risks Empowering Trump Hawks With Threat to Torpedo Summit

(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un’s regime just launched a blistering attack on John Bolton, one of the most hawkish Trump administration members. North Korea may end up emboldening the U.S. national security adviser instead.

Kim Risks Empowering Trump Hawks With Threat to Torpedo Summit

Pyongyang on Wednesday threatened to cancel plans for Kim to meet President Donald Trump next month if the administration insisted he needs to surrender his nuclear weapons before getting anything in return. In doing so, the regime said it felt “repugnance” toward Bolton and rejected a “Libya model” he has advocated in which the regime quickly gives away its nuclear weapons.

The demand raises the question of whether Trump will go ahead with an unprecedented summit with Kim on June 12 in Singapore if he can’t get what he wants: North Korea’s “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” Canceling the meeting would risk a return to the days of weapons testing and threats of war to stop Kim from gaining the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear bomb.

“North Korea isn’t offering to disarm and all the Libya talk by Bolton was designed to sabotage the summit. And it’s working,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “Now we have a real crisis in which the North Koreans have said explicitly that they will not abandon their nuclear program."

Read More on U.S.-North Korea Tensions
  • Link to North Korea’s statement on Wednesday
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  • Bolton and Kim learned different lessons from Libya
  • Closing Kim’s nuclear site won’t hinder nuclear plans: QuickTake

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday that Trump is ready to meet Kim. But if the summit doesn’t occur, she said, “we’ll continue the maximum pressure campaign that’s ongoing.”

While North Korea has often made demands and threatened to walk away from nuclear talks with the U.S. over the years, Wednesday’s warning struck many by surprise. The tersely worded statement from first vice foreign minister Kim Kye Gwan came just a week after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from Pyongyang with three American detainees released as a goodwill gesture.

Testing Kim

But, in the intervening days, Pompeo and Bolton have undercut Kim’s calls for a phased disarmament with public statements advocating a faster process in which North Korea is rewarded only after giving up its weapons. Pompeo on Sunday hailed Trump’s “enormous pressure campaign” and said the U.S. wouldn’t undertake a process in which “they do something, and we give them a bunch of money, and then both sides walk away.”

Bolton, speaking to CNN, said “it’s important to test whether, in fact, North Korea has made a strategic decision to give up weapons of mass destruction.”

North Korea’s statement makes it clear the regime isn’t coming to the summit to capitulate to U.S. pressure, nor does it intend to walk away from its nuclear program unilaterally, according to Lindsey Ford, director of political-security affairs for the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington.

“They clearly feel disrespected and U.S. public statements have backed them into a corner,” Ford said. “This statement is a bit of a warning shot to President Trump, making clear that he needs to adjust the administration’s public commentary, and the messenger, if they want to keep this summit from running off course.”

‘Awfully Sinister Move’

Even before joining the administration last month, Bolton had advocated a military strike on North Korea. He has long argued for North Korea to follow Libya’s example and quickly surrender its weapons to the U.S. -- the catch being that dictator Muammar Qaddafi was killed by NATO-backed rebels two years after the last remnants of his program were removed.

“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue,” Kim Kye Gwan said. “It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”

Earlier Wednesday, North Korea also suspended “indefinitely” a planned minister-level meeting with South Korea, citing the allies’ annual “Max Thunder” air defense drills. The decision adds pressure on South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a key U.S. ally who has championed rapprochement with Pyongyang and last month signed a landmark peace declaration with Kim.

Hawks Rise

The moves leave Trump to decide whether to accept Kim’s conditions or follow through on his pledge to abandon any meeting he doesn’t believe will be fruitful. The president has staked his reputation as a deal-maker on his ability to solve the decades-long dilemma of North Korea’s weapons program.

Kim also has his own interests to consider. While the statement on Wednesday said North Korea isn’t looking for any aid from the U.S., he has framed his move to consider denuclearization as part of a grand strategy to boost the economy.

A failure to meet with Trump could lead to higher tensions and a stronger say for those in the administration like Bolton who are open to military options, Robert Kelly, a political science associate professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told Bloomberg TV.

“If the North Koreans pull out at the last minute, the hawks and conservatives are going to dominate the conversation,” Kelly said. “They will come forward and say: ‘Look I told you we can’t trust the North Koreans, we have to go after them, we have to sanction them or perhaps strike them.’

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