What’s going on with North Korea is a cautionary tale in rushing diplomacy

It seems you can't just go from threatening to bomb a country to total peace in a few months.

A man watches a television news screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on May 16, 2018.  CREDIT: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.
A man watches a television news screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on May 16, 2018. CREDIT: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images.

Amid talks of a historic deal with North Korea and a possible Noble Peace Prize for President Donald Trump (chiefly among his GOP supporters, his aides, and, well, himself), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to be slamming the brakes on the negotiations.

While White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trump administration is “still hopeful that the meeting will take place,” signalling that the president is ready for “tough negotiations,” it’s hard not to notice that this is quite the turn of events.

For one thing, President Trump prides himself on his tough talk with North Korea — he started out promising Kim “fire & fury,” vowing to “totally destroy” North Korea in the fall. The two leaders also exchanged schoolyard taunts with Trump calling Kim a “short and fat” “little rocket man” and Kim calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

But the president is not a fan of process (see: first attempt to quickly repeal Obamacare), and so it’s not surprising that his administration tried to fast-forward from some pretty incendiary talk to successful peaceful negotiations after sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korea in April.

There, Pompeo had an unscheduled meeting with Kim, which the president trumpeted as a “great meeting.” Defending his strategy with Kim, President Trump told Fox & Friends at the time, “I haven’t given up anything. I haven’t even talked about it … they’ve given up denuclearization, testing, research, ‘We’re gonna close different sites,’ and I’m saying to myself, wait a minute. All of these things he’s given up, and we haven’t even really that much asked him. We would’ve asked him, but they gave it up before I even asked!”

But the president spoke too soon.

Two chief factors in Kim’s decision to reconsider the June talks in Singapore — at least, those he articulated — are National Security Adviser John Bolton’s insistence on a “Libya-model” denuclearization as well as ongoing joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States.


According to North Korea’s KCNA official news agency, the country first called off talks with South Korea — due to take place on Wednesday — over the Max Thunder military exercises, which it sees as a threat, even if the United States and South Korea insist they are just standard training drills.

As ThinkProgress reported in late April, The Panmunjom Declaration (arrived at as a result of a summit held at the border between North and South Korea) is as vague as it is broad, especially when it comes to what it means to “cease all hostile acts” on the peninsula.

Then, KCNA on Wednesday published a blistering statement from first vice minister of foreign affairs Kim Kye Gwan stating that the June meeting planned between Kim and President Trump is in jeopardy over Bolton’s demands that Pyongyang do as Libya did (failing to note that things did not work out so well for Libya), charging that the Trump administration is engaged in a “ridiculous comedy” by claiming to take a new tact while “still clinging to the outdated policy.”

The first vice minister said that he had been happy with the progress made toward reaching a détente in talks (even releasing three American prisoners earlier this month), aimed to relieve tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.


However, he added, “unbridled remarks” by “High-ranking officials of the White House and the Department of State including Bolton, White House national security adviser, are letting loose the assertions of so-called Libya model of nuclear abandonment,” and are “essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”

Accusing the United States of trying to force North Korea into a “corner” with forced “unilateral nuclear abandonment,” Kim added Pyongyang “will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] DPRK-U.S. summit.”

Another lesson for the Trump administration might be that history matters:

The fate of Libya and Iraq aside (both countries were invaded and their leaders were killed, with Iraq only now coming out of the grips of a bloody war with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and Libya on the brink of total collapse), it’s not lost on North Korean officials that Bolton has repeatedly said that there’s no point in negotiating with Pyongyang.

Bolton, whose appointment to the job of National Security Adviser was controversial, has called for preemptive strikes on North Korea, calling for the “end” of the country, where he is, in turn, been called a “bloodsucker” and “human scum.”