Beyond the insults and brinksmanship that contributed to the cancellation of the historic meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was the seeming reluctance from North Korea to actually proceed with plans for the summit, which had been destined to take place in Singapore on June 12.
A senior White House official said late Thursday that during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second trip to Pyongyang, the regime promised to send delegates to Singapore to work with American counterparts on logistics for the meeting.
Last week, the White House sent its deputy chief of staff and his advance team to the city state, the official said. “The North Koreans never showed up. The North Koreans didn’t tell us anything. They simply stood us up.”
It was a North Korean “trail of broken promises,” the White House official told reporters in the background briefing, and it related not only to the talks, but also to the “dismantlement” of the test site at Punggye-ri in the country’s north.
’We got a lot of dial tones’
The official said North Korea had promised “that international experts and officials would be invited to witness and verify” the demolition.
“But that promise was broken,” the official said. “Instead, journalists were invited. Journalists are not nuclear experts. So there was no one on site to verify that anything has actually occurred.”
A crew of CNN journalists traveled to witness the events Thursday at Punggye-ri. They and the other journalists who flew into the country were all photographers or television crews.
Tunnels and buildings were blown up, and the journalists were allowed to inspect the remnants. CNN reported that there was no equipment in the huts that were destroyed, “anything that was previously there had been removed.”
The US has made numerous attempts to communicate with the North Koreans, the senior White House official said, “but they have not responded.”
“We got a lot of dial tones,” Pompeo said while testifying Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rather, the official said, North Korea has disseminated threatening statements, warning the Trump administration to “meet us at a meeting room, or encounter us at a nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
“So, this strange lack of judgment, combined with the broken promises over the past weeks, and North Korea’s suspension of direct communication with the United States, suggests a profound lack of faith,” the official said.
North Korea says it’s still keen to meet
On Friday morning North Korea responded to the news, expressing regret at Trump’s decision, and saying it would “give time and opportunity to the US, always with a big and open mind,” according to a statement from First Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kim Kye Gwan.
The North Koreans also questioned the level of interest, but on the side of the White House.
“It is difficult to gauge whether it was because of a lack of will for the summit or a lack of confidence, but we have done our sincere efforts with the expectation that the historic NK-US summit itself is a first step to solving problems through dialogue and a starting point for the peace and safety of the region, and the world, and for improving the relationship between the two countries,” Kim Kye Gwan said in the statement.
“I think Pompeo acted in good faith, and actually has laid out the proverbial offer that Kim Jong Un could not refuse,” argued David Maxwell, a retired US Army Special Forces colonel and a fellow at the Institute of Korean American Studies. “The problem for Kim Jong Un is that we have provided elements of the deal to the public … and that he has to either accept the terms that have been laid out and commit to dismantlement, or reject the deal and undermine his legitimacy with the South and the international community.”
Maxwell argues Pompeo’s promises of investment and economic revival for the isolated regime might have been difficult for Kim Jong Un to turn down while the world was watching in Singapore. More so because he would then have to return to Pyongyang to hardline loyalists who would resist true efforts to pull back on their long-held nuclear ambitions.
“I think Kim may have miscalculated,” said Bruce Bechtol, a professor of political science at Angelo State University who has authored several books on North Korea. “The North Koreans were likely hoping for a “step by step” approach, because this is how they have been able to delay implementation of past accords while still drawing benefits from the US and its allies.”
Trump’s approach might have caught Kim off guard, Bechtol believes. At the very least, he says, it appears that Kim, who’d been enjoying the international spotlight all year, might have lost control of the narrative.
“Kim and his cohorts have now had to regroup,” Bechtol said. “Our president should be commended for insisting that North Korea has benefits available to it and concessions that the US can make, but none of it starts until North Korea transparently dismantles its nuclear weapons program.”
Both sides have left the door open to talks and the possibility of rescheduling the summit, but at the same time, hostilities remain. Pompeo told lawmakers on Thursday that the “pressure campaign continues” and signaled that more sanctions would be put in place.
“We must not expect too much at our first attempt,” North Korea’s Kim Kye Gwan reasoned in Friday’s statement. “But the US should deliberate deeply that if we solve it step by step, the relationship would get better at least. Would it get worse?”