May 17, 2018

Kim's choice for Trump: the summit or Bolton’s approach

A protest in Seoul on May 16, 2018, over the joint South Korea–U.S. military drills. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea canceled talks with South Korea this week in response to joint U.S.–South Korea military drills and has also put next month's U.S.–North Korea summit in doubt.

The big picture: North Korea seems to be insisting on two conditions for the U.S. summit it believed to have been previously established: U.S.–South Korea exercises will exclude threatening military power, and the U.S. will enter denuclearization negotiations in good faith.

During an April 27 meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that military exercises could continue, but with the understanding that major strategic assets like fighter jets and bombers would not be deployed. The most recent exercise did indeed involve F-22s, though plans to use B-52s have reportedly been scrapped. South Korea will likely try to assure the North that it will no longer use such assets in the immediate future.

As for the U.S. negotiations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has now had two direct meetings with Kim. While the details haven't been publicly disclosed, both parties appear to have reached enough of a consensus to move forward with plans for the June summit in Singapore. However, National Security Advisor John Bolton's recent references to a more aggressive denuclearization approach — "the Libya model" — have sowed North Korea doubts about Pompeo’s promised deal.

North Korea's statement now puts the spotlight on Trump, who must decide between Bolton's approach and the summit. Early signs indicate that Trump will opt for the summit, as White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has already described Bolton’s views as his own, not the administration's.

What's next: In the coming days, Seoul and Washington will likely scramble to patch things up so all three parties can proceed with negotiations. But North Korea's message is clear: If the U.S. doesn’t change its insistence on unilateral nuclear abandonment, North Korea may yet walk away from the table.

John Park is director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. Pamela Park is co-founder of the Brookbridge Group.

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