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.
This rebranding of Kim (as well as his family ) is likely a tactic to make it seem like, this time, the North Korean regime can be trusted. However, while the Kim family might be sporting a new vibe, North Korean state media has continued using innovative, bombastic invective against the United States. Since the summit’s announcement, it’s published content condemning the United States as an aggressive imperialist, terrorist nation, concluding that U.S. assistance leads to the “death” of nations. The May 16 statements may be the first time that North Korea has threatened to pull out of the summit, but they’re not the first time that North Korea has warned the United States that its behavior puts the summit at risk. Just because Kim wants to seem personable doesn’t mean that North Korea will accept the United States’ maximalist demands.
3. Diplomacy Won’t Be Easy
The diplomatic process with North Korea thus far has seemed almost too easy. North Korea decided it wanted diplomacy in the beginning of 2018. Within weeks there were inter-Korean talks, and within a month a unified Korean entrance to the Pyeongchang Olympics. South Korea’s national security advisor briefs Trump and then the first-ever meeting between the sitting leaders of the U.S. and North Korea was on the books. North Korea and South Korea had a spectacle of a summit that ended with a declaration that said all the right things about the end of the Korean War and denuclearization. These two May 16 statements are one of the first major signs of trouble, and they’re representative of the fact that this process isn’t going to be simple. While a splashy summit might seem to make the right kind of waves, a substantive negotiation will involve conflict and messy decisions.
With that said, it’s not time to throw the diplomacy baby out with the bathwater yet. There are signs that North Korea is committed to this summit. In a symbolic gesture, Kim said he would dismantle the Punggye-ri nuclear testing facility, and there is evidence that this process has already started. The second May 16 statement also plays to Trump’s ego, noting his “ambition to make unprecedented success,” and communicates that if he does not change his North Korea policy, he will be remembered as “more tragic and unsuccessful” than his predecessors; it seems like North Korea is trying to wheedle Trump to the table.