WASHINGTON — The White House brushed aside threats by North Korea on Wednesday to cancel an upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, saying it was still “hopeful” the meeting will happen — but that Trump would be fine if it did not.
“The president is ready if the meeting takes place,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Fox News on Wednesday. “And if it doesn’t, we will continue the maximum pressure campaign that has been ongoing.”
White House officials said they were taking North Korea’s latest warnings in stride, in part because Kim, not Trump, had sought the meeting. They said they expected the North to maneuver for tactical advantage in the run-up to the meeting, which is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
When Trump was asked Wednesday about the prospects for the summit to go off as planned, he was noncommittal, telling reporters in the Oval Office, “We’ll have to see.” Trump said he would still insist on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the talks.
In its warning Wednesday, North Korea said Kim could withdraw from the meeting over Washington’s demand that it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal.
The sudden change came after months in which Kim presented himself as a statesman, not as the tyrant that much of the world takes him to be. By issuing the latest threat, the North reverted to his earlier hard-line stance on retaining nuclear weapons and to a North Korean playbook that includes sudden shifts in tactics when negotiating with other nations.
But US officials acknowledged that the North appeared to be seeking to exploit a gap in the administration’s messages about North Korea — between the hard-line views of national security adviser John Bolton and the more conciliatory tone of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met twice with Kim in Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the summit.
In a recent television interview, Bolton said the precedent for the North Korea negotiations should be Libya, which agreed to box up its entire nuclear program and ship it out of the country. Bolton said North Korea should receive no benefits, including the lifting of sanctions, until it had surrendered its entire nuclear infrastructure.
Pompeo, by contrast, emphasized the US investment that would flow into North Korea if it agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. He, too, said that the North would have to agree to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” the technical shorthand used by the administration to describe its bargaining position with Pyongyang.
The president has shifted between a hard-line and more conciliatory tone in his statements about the North, although in recent days he has expressed excitement about a potential breakthrough with Kim. He has not yet responded to the warning Wednesday issued by the North’s first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, which took direct aim at Bolton.
Assessing the North’s recent statements, Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said North Korea had begun to fear looking weak by taking unilateral steps, including its moratorium on missile tests. He noted that the United States, rather than offering concessions of its own, has vowed to keep up its maximum pressure on the North if it fails to quickly denuclearize.
“The last thing Kim Jong Un can afford is to look like he is surrendering his nuclear weapons,” Koh said.
If North Korea’s tough statements Wednesday caught officials in Seoul and Washington off guard, they also reflected a well-established North Korean stance, with Kim saying his country wants to enter talks with the United States as an equal nuclear power.
Few analysts said North Korea would ultimately go so far as to cancel the Singapore meeting. Rather, the threat to withdraw was an attempt to raise the price that Washington would have to pay to get any significant concessions on the North’s nuclear program, analysts said.
“The goal is to change the subject from what the US wants to talk about — denuclearization — to Pyongyang’s preferred focus: US military exercises, the US ‘threat’ and by extension the US-South Korea alliance,” said Evans J.R. Revere, who directed Korean policy at the State Department during the administration of President George W. Bush.
North Korea’s abrupt change in tone began Wednesday, when it indefinitely postponed high-level talks with South Korea, blaming the joint military drills known as Max Thunder with the United States that began last week.
When Kim met with President Xi Jinping of China twice in the past two months, he sought support for his country’s long-standing demand that Washington and its allies take “synchronized” steps to satisfy the North’s security needs in return for any “phased” moves toward denuclearization.
North Korea turned to China because, as the North’s biggest economic benefactor, it can provide the best economic and political cover as Kim confronts Trump over his demands.