North Korea Threatens to Walk From Summit Over Military Exercises, Denuclearization

As if the U.S.-North Korea narrative was not already dominated by plot twists, Kim Jong-un just served up another. On Tuesday, Pyongyang threatened to cancel the planned June 12 Singapore summit between Kim and U.S. president Donald Trump. The regime is supposedly angry about long-planned joint military exercises by the U.S. and South Korea, which the allies insist are merely defensive.

“The U.S. will have to think twice about the fate of the DPRK-U.S. summit now on high agenda before a provocative military racket against the DPRK in league with the South Korean authorities,” KCNA, a state-run news agency (there are no other kinds) in North Korea thundered. Later, North Korea’s vice foreign minister repeated the threat, though or a different reason, saying that North Korea would cancel the meeting if the U.S. insisted on “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

In truth, the summit is likely to go on. The North is desperate for relief from sanctions, as the elites whose support Kim needs are being hit hard. (“Unilateral nuclear abandonment” is a canard, anyway: Any denuclearization deal will be tied to economic help for North Korea, which is poorer than Afghanistan.) Moreover, North Korea and the United States have invested too much in the meeting to walk away. Notwithstanding Tuesday’s screed, KCNA, which usually delights in publishing anti-U.S. rhetoric so extreme that it makes the ayatollah sound like Lee Greenwood, has changed its tune in recent weeks, a clear sign of the new approach from the very top of the barbarous regime.

And indeed, the content of what will be discussed in Singapore, and what will come out of the meeting, has almost certainly already been worked out by the two sides: That’s presumably what Mike Pompeo has discussed with Kim on his two visits to Pyongyang. The Singapore summit will likely be a very, very hyped photo-op, but one that both Kim and Trump want strongly want to do.

So then what’s going on here? The North’s seemingly irrational threat to walk away is in fact part of a long established pattern: pushing and probing. The regime likes to see how far it can bend its adversaries. As South Korea’s liberal president Moon Jae-in pushed for a thaw in relations with North Korea this year and last, the North sort-of agreed (hence the meeting between Moon and Kim in Panmunjom), but still took provocative actions. Consider the supposed détente that occurred at the Olympics this winter. South Korea invited a large delegation from the North, and they stole the show. But the North couldn’t resist poking the South in the eye: For the closing ceremonies, Pyongyang dispatched Kim Yong-chol, who has masterminded plots that murdered South Koreans. The response from Seoul? Radio silence.

This week’s threat from the North is probably similar: The thinking from Pyongyang is, “let’s see what the Americans are willing to give us.” A suspension of military exercises? Unlikely to happen, though if they were actually scuttled, they would telegraph to North Korea what kind of concessions the U.S. is willing to make. North Korea claiming it may cancel the meeting is better understood as a test than a bona fide threat.

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