North Korea Threatens to Cancel Trump-Kim Summit

Now is the time to “speak softly and carry a big stick."

The nuclear summit between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump, scheduled to take place on June 12th in Singapore, may not happen after all. The North Korean regime has objected to the ongoing 'Max Thunder' joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. Its state-run news agency KCNA stated, “The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities.” North Korea showed that it meant business by cancelling a separate high-level meeting with South Korea. However, North Korea had not made the discontinuance of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises a precondition to holding the summit meeting in the first place. Moreover, in an apparent response to North Korea’s complaint, the United States and South Korea decided to downscale the exercises, excluding B-52 strategic bombers and eight F-22 Raptors from the drill. Still North Korea is balking. Raising the exercises now as a reason for cancelling the summit is just a pretext to further justify the real reason that the North Korean regime is growing uneasy about moving forward with the summit. The North Korean regime is pushing back on the U.S.’s definition of complete denuclearization, which the regime claims amounts to a demand for “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

What appears to have spooked the North Koreans was National Security Adviser John Bolton’s invocation of the “Libyan model” to describe what the Trump administration is expecting the North Korean regime to do with all its nuclear weapons. The late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi had accepted the U.S. proposal to completely dismantle his nuclear program, which was then in its preliminary stages, in return for sanctions relief. Qaddafi’s regime was toppled, and he was killed in a bloody fashion by NATO backed rebels in 2011. Kim Jong-un will not yield to U.S. pressure to give up his entire arsenal of nuclear weapons, which he views as a necessary insurance for his regime’s survival and his own personal safety.

This impasse was about to happen sooner or later. The growing optimism regarding the summit, especially after the North Korean regime’s decision to release the three detained U.S. citizens, was overblown. As I wrote last month, “No matter what he says, Kim also will not give up all his nuclear weapons and missiles in which he has invested so much. At most, he may agree after protracted negotiations to gradually ramp down his nuclear weapons and missile programs, under the aegis of a non-intrusive inspection mechanism.” 

That said, Mr. Bolton could have chosen a better model for analogy purposes than one that conjured up an image sparking the paranoid North Korean dictator’s worst fears. For example, South Africa, which had manufactured 6 air-deliverable nuclear weapons of the "gun-type" design, halted its nuclear weapons program in 1989 and dismantled existing weapons and production equipment. IAEA inspections in 1993 confirmed the complete dismantlement of South Africa’s nuclear weapons program.

Ukraine could serve as another model, although its situation has been more complicated. According to the Arms Control Association, “At the time of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, including an estimated 1,800 strategic warheads, 176 long-range ballistic missiles, and 42 strategic bombers. By 1996, Ukraine had returned all its nuclear warheads to Russia in exchange for economic aid and security assurances, and Ukraine became a non-nuclear weapon state party to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).” The 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances had been previously signed by the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom as guarantors of Ukraine's security. By 1996, according to the Arms Control Association, Ukraine had moved its last nuclear warhead out of its territory to Russia, and by 2001 it eliminated its last strategic nuclear weapon delivery vehicle.

Although Ukraine did denuclearize within a decade, the complication in using it as a model for the negotiations with North Korea arises from the fact that Russia did not adhere to all its security commitments under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Although Ukraine is still an independent country with a central government that Russia did not topple, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and has fomented unrest in eastern Ukraine. However, the North Korean regime would be hard pressed to cite Russia’s actions as a reason to oppose utilizing the Ukraine model as a guide for negotiations leading to North Korea’s own denuclearization if it wants to stay on friendly terms with Russia. In any case, Kazakhstan could serve as another, perhaps less controversial, model.

Quiet diplomacy with eyes and ears open for any North Korean dissembling, backed up by maintaining maximum economic pressure and military preparedness, should be the main approach for the Trump administration to pursue right now. It worked in securing the release of the three U.S. citizens held in captivity. Unnecessarily hot rhetoric during the leadup to the scheduled date for the summit will give Kim Jong-un an easy excuse to cancel the summit and pin the blame on the United States for propaganda purposes.

President Trump has already made it clear that he is prepared to cancel or walk away from the summit if he does not see positive concrete results in short order. This means that the North Korean regime must quickly demonstrate through meaningful actions that it is seriously interested in pursuing a path leading to substantial, irreversible and verifiable dismantling of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery systems, along with the associated testing sites and production facilities. Until the regime is well along that path, there should be no easing of the economic sanctions. As Theodore Roosevelt said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."