North Korea has threatened to withdraw from a planned summit with the US if Washington continues to pressure it to “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear weapons programme.
Marking a return of the regime’s fiery rhetoric, Pyongyang on Wednesday issued a flurry of missives castigating South Korean and US officials — in particular John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser.
“If they try to corner us and pressure us unilaterally to give up nuclear weapons, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue. We will have to reconsider whether to participate in the upcoming North Korea-US talks,” said Kim Kye Gwan, vice-minister of foreign affairs, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.
The official’s comments follow a decision by Pyongyang earlier in the day to axe high-level talks with Seoul scheduled for Wednesday in response to joint South Korea-US military drills.
The annual “Max Thunder” air force exercises were a “deliberate military provocation to the trend of the favourably developing situation on the Korean peninsula”, said KCNA, a government mouthpiece.
“The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-US summit in light of this provocative military ruckus. There is a limit in showing goodwill and offering opportunity,” it added.
For sceptics, the comments will compound fears that Pyongyang is not genuine in its pledges to abandon its nuclear weapons and is instead attempting to manipulate its adversaries by drawing out and complicating talks.
Kim Jong Un, the country’s supreme leader, was set to meet Mr Trump on June 12 in Singapore for a summit that the US president hoped would spur the denuclearisation of North Korea.
Pyongyang is believed to maintain an arsenal of about 60 nuclear devices and is close to mastering the technology needed to load those weapons on to long-range missiles capable of reaching the US, experts say.
In April, Mr Kim met South Korean president Moon Jae-in in Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas, with both leaders reaffirming their desire for reduced hostilities and a peninsula free of nuclear weapons.
However, the comments from Kim Kye Gwan raise questions about those pledges.
In particular, North Korea has taken issue with demands from Mr Bolton for a Libya-style process of denuclearisation. The western-backed overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi serves as a salutary reminder to Pyongyang of why it should not abandon its nuclear weapons.
“We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him. If the Trump administration fails to recall the lessons learnt from the past . . . the prospects of upcoming summit will be crystal clear,” said the North Korean foreign minister.
Analysts say Kim Jong Un is unlikely to pull out of the meeting with Mr Trump and that threats to do so are attempts to increase the regime’s bargaining power.
“The North’s actions are intended to maximise their negotiating power before the summit meeting,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University in South Korea. “The regime’s survival and security is the most sensitive issue for Kim Jong Un. So the sudden cancellation of talks is intended to deliver a message that its security cannot be compromised in the summit meeting.”
However, some have raised doubts about whether the US-South Korea military drills are actually a source of concern for the regime, particularly given that the supreme leader has said he “understands” the need for the exercises.
Dan Pinkston, a North Korea expert at the international relations faculty of Troy University, said the air exercises could be a “convenient excuse for Kim Jong Un to cancel the summit with Trump if he’s getting cold feet about going to Singapore”.
“Dictators do what they must to stay in power,” he said.
Some analysts have also suggested that the latest move by North Korea should be seen as pushback against the triumphalist rhetoric from Washington, where some are already saying Mr Trump should be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table.
The statement from Kim Kye Gwan appears to support that view. “The US is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of [North Korea] as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure. If President Trump follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, he will be recorded as a more tragic and unsuccessful president than his predecessors,” he said.
Dennis Wilder, a specialist in East Asian affairs at Georgetown University who has worked in both the CIA and White House, said the North Koreans were attempting to put the US on the back foot after hearing tough talk about summit objectives from both Mr Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo. “The North Koreans were worried that we were rolling towards the summit in a way that put them on the defensive,” he said.
The fact that Mr Trump had not immediately tweeted a response suggested that the US wanted to be cautious in responding, he added. “It is expected that you are going to have this kind of posturing and manoeuvring on the way to the summit.”
The White House said it was looking into the matter. South Korea’s unification ministry said the decision to cancel the talks on Wednesday was “regrettable”.
In its statement, North Korea also took issue with the “human scum” in South Korea who recently hurt the “dignity of the supreme leadership” — comments taken as reference to criticism from prominent North Korea defector-diplomat Thae Yong-ho.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong and Song Jung-a in Seoul and Sam Fleming in Washington