The prospects for a successful diplomatic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are looking dimmer by the day.
Since the two governments began discussing a meeting between Kim and Trump, which would be the first between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader, diplomatic relations have been thawing. In April the North Korean government announced a suspension of nuclear and missile testing. That was followed by a meeting between Kim and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-In, both of whom committed to reaching a permanent peace agreement. Last week three Americans imprisoned in North Korea were returned to the United States.
The last few days have seen a sudden reversal of this good will. On Tuesday the North Korean government suspended talks with the South in response to its joint military exercises with the U.S. Hours later it issued an angry missive castigating National Security Adviser John Bolton for suggesting in April that the U.S. should follow the "Libya model" of denuclearization with North Korea. Such talk, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official said, was putting the summit in danger. Yesterday North Korea's chief inter-Korean diplomat said that "unless the serious situation which led to the suspension of the north-south high-level talks is settled, it will never be easy to sit face to face again with the present regime of South Korea."
The Trump administration's response has been pretty sedate. When asked Wednesday whether the impending summit will still happen, Trump offered a cryptic "we'll see." White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday downplayed Bolton's "Libya model" remark, saying the administration will follow "the President Trump model."
Many journalists portrayed North Korea's shift as another example of Kim's aggressiveness, erraticism, or both. The New York Times said the move was part of "a pattern by the unpredictable regime: diplomatic outreach, followed by erratic behavior and, in many cases, an outright rejections of peace overtures." In a CNN opinion piece, David Rothkopf said Tuesday's "verbal pre-emptive strike" was aimed at seeing how far Trump would go to save a summit in which he has invested so much political capital. Ethan Epstein, writing in The Weekly Standard, said "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."
Yet North Korea's reaction to Bolton's "Libya model" comments is understandable given what happened to Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi after he surrendered his nuclear weapons program in 2003. "Perhaps the simplest and biggest reason North Korea doesn't like the Libya model is what happened to the Gadhafi regime," Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, a political science professor at Olso University and author of a book on the Iraqi and Libyan nuclear weapons programs, told The Washington Post. "In 2011, it was toppled by a domestic uprising and a NATO-led coalition."
The North Korean government said as much on Tuesday, declaring that the "world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met [a] miserable fate." That Bolton's comments were followed by joint military drills involving some 100 U.S. warplanes would be enough to spook a lot of governments, let alone a deeply paranoid one like North Korea's. "North Korea's message should be interpreted not as an attempt to spoil the mood but rather as encouragement to do a better job," an unnamed South Korean official told The Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper.
Trump has said his summit with Kim could be "a very special moment for World Peace!" He has set the difficult goal of convincing the North Korean regime to completely surrender its nuclear arsenal. It's an open question whether that result is achievable, but bellicose rhetoric from hawkish advisers, combined with conspicuous military drills, surely do not make it easier.