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North Korea

Without economic gains, North Korea ‘may lose interest’ in summit with US

By threatening to walk away from meeting, Pyongyang is sending a warning to US that it wants something in return for denuclearisation, observers say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 May, 2018, 11:29pm

Pyongyang is trying to maximise its bargaining power to get more economic concessions from Washington and Seoul – even before it fully gives up its nuclear weapons – by threatening to pull out of the upcoming summit with the US, observers said.

The assessment came after Pyongyang cancelled talks with Seoul scheduled for Wednesday and said it may reconsider the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump planned for June 12 in Singapore.

North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said Pyongyang had no choice but to “take a step of suspending the North-South high-level talks”, accusing Washington and Seoul of provocation by staging the “largest ever ... Max Thunder joint air drill throughout South Korea”.

Kim Jong-un’s previous attacks on US-South Korean drills

Chinese President Xi Jinping meanwhile told Pak Tae-song, from North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party, in Beijing on Wednesday that China supported North Korea’s efforts to develop its economy and hold dialogue with the US, state-run Xinhua reported.

A source from the South Korean air force described the exercise as a “regular defensive drill to protect our sovereignty”, and said there had been no change at this stage to scale it down.

Chun Byung-gon, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said Pyongyang may feel that Washington and Seoul were not responding with reciprocal measures to its actions towards denuclearisation, such as closing down the Punggye-ri test site. 

“Pyongyang may consider the Max Thunder drill this year to be ‘beyond a regular exercise’ as it involves strategic US aircraft such as F-22s and B-52s,” Chun said.

New satellite images appear to show North Korea dismantling its Punggye-ri nuclear test site

The North sees the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, an all-weather stealth fighter jet, and the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, a subsonic strategic bomber that can carry 32,000kg of weapons, as major threats to its regime security.

Sun Xingjie, a Korean affairs specialist at Jilin University, said North Korea’s move on Wednesday exposed the gap between Pyongyang and Washington on denuclearisation ahead of the summit between Kim and Trump. 

It was also a sign that the North would not accept the “Libyan model” of disarmament suggested by US National Security Adviser John Bolton. The 2003 deal saw the Libyan government ship documents and equipment related to its nuclear programme to Tennessee to be destroyed in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

“The Libyan model Bolton mentioned two weeks ago is a very extreme measure, under which North Korea had to completely give up its nuclear weapons before the US eased sanctions – this would never be accepted by North Korea,” Sun said.

Washington would come under greater pressure if Kim decided to call off the summit, he said.

“Trump has publicly mocked his predecessors for making no progress on North Korea, and now he may be in the same position – and North Korea apparently understands that,” Sun said.

Chung Jae-heung, a researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said Pyongyang would be looking for economic concessions to be given in parallel with its denuclearisation efforts.

“Washington has ... widened its goal to dismantle Pyongyang’s chemical weapons and missile facilities. It even proposed physically bringing the North’s nuclear weapons to the United States mainland to be dismantled,” Chung said.

“From the North’s perspective, it has given up the Punggye-ri test site but has not had anything in return. So by resisting the US-led proposals, it is trying to ensure economic compensation during the process of denuclearisation,” he added. “If there are no details forthcoming on economic compensation, North Korea might lose interest in the summit in Singapore.”

False starts and failures: the long road to the Trump-Kim summit

The North could be “sincere” about calling off the summit with the South, according to Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

“Pyongyang may not be bluffing because accommodating all of the US demands may not guarantee the survival of its regime. I see this as a very strong warning to the US,” Lim said. 

“In fact, the North believes further compromise [in line with demands from Washington] will put its regime security at stake.”

When Kim meets Trump: compromise holds the key to peace in Korea

It was also a message that Pyongyang was “not being forced, under maximum pressure from the US, but acting of its own accord to ease tensions and improve relations with the South”, said Korean affairs specialist Cai Jian, from Fudan University in Shanghai. 

The latest development also reinforced China’s role as mediator, he said. “After all the years of confrontation, there’s very little trust between the US and North Korea,” Cai said. “The nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula will never be solved through one or two summits.”