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The North Korean backsliding, apparently in response to aggressive US talk on the need for “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization” by Pyongyang before Washington eased any pressure, put the Singapore summit on skids, suggesting the celebratory commentary about bringing the reclusive communist regime to heel is premature.
US commentators of conservative hue had gone overboard with Trump’s diplomatic triumph in engaging North Korea, but the quixotic country provided a stark reminder that it was not about to roll over in a one-sided capitulation that much of the world read into its decision to engage directly with the US. Apparently, North Korea has demands too from the US and South Korea.
“If the Trump administration approaches the summit with sincerity… it will receive a deserved response from us,” North Korea’s vice foreign minister Kim Gye Gwan said in a statement on Wednesday, adding, “however, if the US is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.”
The North Korean reservations came even as New Delhi sent Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh to Pyongyang on Wednesday on a surprise visit, presumably to build bridges with a country India has long disdained because of its nuclear proliferation ties to Pakistan. Singh’s unscheduled visit came after US interlocutors, including the new National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, had telephonic exchanges last week with their Indian counterparts Ajit Doval and Sushma Swaraj respectively.
It was not clear immediately if Singh was acting as an intermediary or pursuing New Delhi’s own agenda, but the surprise visit came just as North Korea backtracked from what was seen as a lock-in of the Singapore summit.
Trump supporters had gone so far as to lobby for a Nobel Peace Prize for him despite cautionary advise from sections of the diplomatic community that Kim could be playing American for suckers.
The North Korean ire was apparently provoked by continued US-South Korea air force drills that it said was ruining the build-up to the Singapore summit, and tough statements from US leaders, including the view of the new National Security Advisor John Bolton that Pyongyang’s denuclearization should follow what was imposed on Libya in 2004 – when he was an undersecretary for arms control.
“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move[s] to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq, which had been collapsed due to the yielding of their countries to big powers,” the North Korean minister said, expressing “repugnance” towards Bolton, a US hawk it had once described as “human scum.”
Much of the western narrative so far has implied that North Korea was making unilateral concessions because of its dire economic status, but Wednesday’s pushback by Pyongyang revealed that it expected a mutual and simultaneous reduction of tension, including scrapping air exercises called Max Thunder between South Korea and the United States.
The Washington-Seoul alliance assumed that North Korea had accepted the continuation of the drills but they either misread or misrepresented Pyongyang’s reservations, including its insistence that denuclearization and lifting of sanctions and economic aid should be simultaneous, and not sequential.
The White House played down the North Korean statements, with President Trump, always quick on the Twitter trigger, not commenting on them till the time of writing, and his spokesperson Sarah Sanders saying the US will “look at what North Korea has said independently and continue to coordinate closely with our allies.”
The state department too said it had received no notice of any change or cancellation of the Singapore summit and preparations were underway for it.