Who Wants a Deal More: North Korea or the United States?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the first enlarged meeting of the seventh Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang May 18, 2018. KCNA/via REUTERS

While a recent tonal shift in North Korean statements is a jarring departure from the image Kim has been conveying for the past five months, diplomacy isn’t doomed yet.

Just when the sailing seemed smooth as American president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speed toward their June 12 summit in Singapore, the seas are starting to get rough. On May 16, North Korea issued two statements that put the upcoming meeting on shaky ground. One stated, “the U.S. will have to think twice about the fate of the DPRK-U.S. summit,” because of the U.S.-South Korea Max Thunder military drills, which are taking place until May 25 and are seen as a violation of the Panmunjom Declaration from the inter-Korea summit. The other attacked National Security Advisor John Bolton and his call for a Libya-model of denuclearization, saying that if the U.S. is trying to force North Korea’s hand in “unilateral” denuclearization, the country, “will…reconsider our proceeding to the D.P.R.K.-U.S. summit.” While this might be a jarring tonal shift from the image Kim has been conveying for the past five months, diplomacy isn’t doomed yet. Here are a few takeaways from the statements.

1. North Korea and the United States Are Not as Aligned as the United States Thinks They Are

The definition and sequencing of “denuclearization” is going to be the crux of the Trump-Kim summit. The U.S. has said its goal is the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (also known as CVID) of North Korea—although there has been some backtracking in recent days. North Korea historically views denuclearization as applying to the whole peninsula as a mutual arms control process. In the second May 16 statement, North Korea said that Bolton’s demands are a threat to North Korea’s safety and that it’s not interested in “unilateral nuclear abandonment.” While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested that Kim is on the same page as the United States, the May 16 statements raise doubts. This disconnect between North Korea and the United States could portend disaster—if the United States continues pushing a CVID model inspired by that of Libya, diplomacy will be a nonstarter with the North. If the internal fissions of the Trump administration continue to play out in public, they also put this summit at risk.

2. Kim’s Rebranding Doesn’t Mean That North Korea Has Done a 180°

U.S.-D.P.R.K. relations in 2017 could be characterized by over-the-top rhetoric, economic sanctions and military threats. 2018, on the other hand, has been marked by a shift towards diplomacy as Kim reopened communications channels with South Korea, met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Chinese leader Xi Jinping (twice), and stated a commitment to denuclearization. Kim has been sending a message that he’s a reasonable, reliable and legitimate world leader rather than an authoritarian dictator with an execution, imprisonment and human rights problem.

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