“Deliberately provoking the other party at a time when conditions on the Korean Peninsula are moving in the direction of peace and reconciliation can be regarded as nothing other than a dangerous attempt to pour cold water on the mood for dialogue … and take us back to square one.” — DPRK Foreign Ministry
WASHINGTON — As the U.S. summit with North Korea fast approaches, both countries are jostling to preserve their respective interests. The tense signals, subtle shifts in position, and U.S. provocations make clear that the summit won’t be short on tough negotiations.
Despite the honeyed words of previous months following U.S. President Donald Trump’s agreement to meet directly with Kim Jong-un, Washington is adopting a more hard-line stance demanding “permanent” denuclearization and a range of agenda items that likely haven’t previously been discussed with Pyongyang.
At the same time, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is officially called, is asserting its dissatisfaction with U.S. ambitions while insisting on the lifting of crippling sanctions and an end to U.S.-spearheaded hostility against it.
U.S. appetite reveals itself
While President Trump tweeted early Tuesday morning that “relationships and trust are building” with Pyongyang, corporate media pundits and officials in Washington have openly cast suspicion on the DPRK leader’s sudden policy change prioritizing economic development and opening-up over further nuclear weapons development.
Last Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced the phrase “permanent, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” as a guiding mantra behind Washington’s approach to the coming talks, indicating an expectation that the DPRK not be allowed to control any technology that had previously been used to create its nuclear deterrent arsenal.
The statement was followed up Friday with a meeting between ultra-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton and Japanese National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi. A White House press statement indicated that the two had agreed to add the demand that the upcoming summit achieves the “the complete and permanent dismantlement of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, including all nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, biological and chemical weapons, and related programs.”
The very next day on May 5, the U.S. State Department condemned the DPRK’s satellite program as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, shifting the goalposts beyond the peace and denuclearization that Kim had originally offered.
Meanwhile, hopes that the talks could include the drawing-down of the 28,500-strong U.S. troop presence in the Korean Peninsula, where the U.S. retains operational control of South Korea’s military, have been discouraged. Officials in Pentagon, Japan and the South worry that such a reduction would do damage to the U.S.-dominated security architecture that has prevailed in the Asia-Pacific theater since the end of the Korean War.
Right-wing South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo urged South Korean President Moon Jae-in to “clearly tell Trump that the issue should not be up for negotiation with Kim.”
The DPRK lashes back
On Sunday, a spokesman for the DPRK Foreign Ministry blasted the U.S. in a manner echoing a tone used previously against Washington, before the two countries agreed to meet.
Speaking to the DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency, the Foreign Ministry spokesman cautioned against mistaking Pyongyang’s “peace-loving resolution for weakness,” continuing to apply maximum pressure and military threats, which won’t help resolve the nuclear issue.
Bluntly expressing dissatisfaction with the pre-summit atmosphere, the foreign ministry spokesman added:
Deliberately provoking the other party at a time when conditions on the Korean Peninsula are moving in the direction of peace and reconciliation can be regarded as nothing other than a dangerous attempt to pour cold water on the mood for dialogue that has been created after so long and to take us back to square one.”
Addressing Japan on Sunday, Pyongyang-aligned news outlet Meari adopted a blistering tone against Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who has called for the maintenance of sanctions and the maximum pressure tack versus the DPRK.
“We cannot but laugh at the Japanese reactionaries’ reckless act of anachronism in their attempt to find a way of survival only in hostile maneuvers against North Korea,” it said.
At the same time, ruling Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun accused Tokyo of “trying to free ride” on the recent thaw in relations between the Koreas and the U.S. — opportunistically using the diplomacy between others to staple on its own demands, while showing that it is “not ready to join the trend of the times” and haughtily expressing disapproval from a distance. The newspaper commented:
What it has to remember is that it can never evade the fate of [being a] left-out person if it behaves [disgustingly] while repeating the old cliche of ‘sanctions’ and ‘pressure’ as [it is doing] now.”
While Tokyo claims to welcome talks with Pyongyang, the latter has shown little appetite for reconciling with Japan while the right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to uphold the need for extreme sanctions and the isolation of the North.
China shows that its ally isn’t alone
Kim Jong-un and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held their second summit in 40 days on Monday and Tuesday to discuss bilateral ties and common concerns, according to press reports. The two issued friendly statements stressing the need to advance China-DPRK relations, enhance unity and various exchanges, and build people-to-people ties between the allied nations. Following a period of tense relations, the two countries have rapidly improved ties in the run-up to the historic DPRK-U.S. meeting.
The Kim-Xi summit came amid bruising tension between Beijing and Washington that could lead to a trade war, including a long list of demands by the U.S. that will likely be seen as unacceptable and humiliating to China.
During the meeting, Kim noted that the possession of nuclear arms wouldn’t be necessary for the DPRK once the hostility against his country ceases:
Denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula is the clear position North Korea has always adhered to. As long as relevant sides remove hostile policies and security threats toward North Korea, it’s not necessary for the nation to have nuclear weapons.
Denuclearization is achievable. I hope North Korea and the United States can build mutual trust through dialogue. All sides need to take phased and synchronized measures to push forward the peaceful solution to the issues on the Korean Peninsula, to realize denuclearization and long-lasting peace on the peninsula.”
However, Donald Trump’s continued insistence that he deserves all the credit for building toward peace through his insulting and hostile approach to the DPRK hardly signals that he will approach the summit in a respectful manner that takes the North’s demands for an end to sanctions into consideration. In such a scenario, especially given Washington’s tensions with Beijing, the DPRK may find that China will form a crucial bulwark of support if U.S. stubbornness derails talks.
It remains to be seen whether the tit-for-tat barbed statements and disagreements between the U.S. and the DPRK will spoil the mood for the upcoming summit, but it’s clear that Washington is seeking to use its upper hand to extract as many concessions as possible from Pyongyang. The DPRK’s leadership, in turn, can hardly be expected to unconditionally surrender as a condition for holding talks meant to safeguard its national security.
Top Photo | Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a 2018 trip. (White House via AP)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.