North Korea’s abrupt threat this week to pull out of the upcoming summit with President Trump was highly calculated, according to intelligence officials who say Pyongyang wanted to harden its negotiating position against a quick “Libya-style” surrender of its nuclear programs sought by the Trump White House and buy time to hide its nuclear weapons.
While U.S. officials say they believe Pyongyang’s threat — conveyed so far only via state-controlled media — was also driven by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s need to show his domestic audience he won’t “roll over” to Mr. Trump, the development raised fresh questions about the scope of Pyongyang’s nuclear operations and Mr. Kim’s willingness to abandon them.
While great uncertainty swirls around the extent of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, U.S. officials and private analysts say Pyongyang’s history of dragging out talks and inking agreements they have no intention of implementing is well known.
“The North Koreans have this belief they can somehow outsmart the U.S.,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is close with the Trump administration and has past experience negotiating with Pyongyang.
“They may be attempting to sanitize their facilities right now while also trying to buy more time for that,” he said.
In a move that took both Washington and Seoul by surprise, Pyongyang has seized on joint U.S.-South Korean military drills now underway as the justification to cancel a planned meeting of North and South Korean officials. It also raises questions about the proposed June 12 Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.
The rogue regime also hurled invective at the U.S. government — and new National Security Adviser John Bolton by name — for suggesting the North’s complete denuclearization must happen quickly.
Pyongyang’s official news agency published a statement late Tuesday night that went specifically after Mr. Bolton, a longtime skeptic of talks with the North before his recent appointment, for saying repeatedly in recent media appearances the so-called “Libya model” of denuclearization would be the best template for a deal with Pyongyang.
That’s a reference to the relatively quick deal the George W. Bush administration and Britain struck in 2003 with Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi to give up his nuclear materials — which were far less developed than North Korea’s program — in exchange for sanctions relief and the promise of normalized relations with the West.
The problem, from North Korea’s perspective: Gadhafi’s nuclear weapons-less regime was toppled in a NATO-backed revolt ignited by the 2011 Arab Spring, and the dictator himself was hunted down and shot by rebel forces.
North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan, in the first comment by a North Korean official about the abrupt shift this week, chastised Mr. Bolton for “letting loose the assertions of the so-called Libya model.”
“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of an 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,” the North Korean foreign minister said.
Intelligence officials told The Washington Times they believe Kim Kye-gwan was carefully chosen to deliver the message because of his background as a North Korean official who has some 25 years experience in navigating the tortuous negotiations with the U.S. and its allies.
One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the fact the message did not target Mr. Trump personally means it was likely aggressive posturing by a seasoned but lower-ranked North Korean operator. Mr. Kim, who had previously authorized a string of conciliatory moves to both Seoul and Washington, has not commented publicly on recent events.
“This was an attack motivated by Bolton’s TV comments about the Libya model and this idea that North Korea is going to quickly pack its nuclear program in boxes and ship it off to the U.S.,” said Michael Pillsbury, a longtime expert and author focused on China and North Korea on at the Hudson Institute.
“But there are still many options open,” he said, suggesting true denuclearization that takes more than a few months is going to be required for dealing with North Korea’s program, which is far more vast and complex today than 2009, when talks toward its dismantlement last broke down.
“Common sense tells you that if they have between 10 and 60 nuclear weapons, they’re going to have a hell of a lot more boxes than the Libyans had,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “The idea of ‘trust but verify’ will need some aspect of denuclearization to take place quickly and up-front, but we’re not talking 24 hours, its more like at least a year.”
Finding ant holes
In addition to a plutonium factory, North Korea is believed to have more than 10 separate nuclear-related facilities, although there is debate over the specific functions each plays in the bomb-making process and the extent to which there may be other unidentified facilities.
Following a series of tests that sent U.S.-North Korean tensions soaring in Mr. Trump’s first year in office, U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that Pyongyang has succeeded in developing a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile, and possibly is close to having a nuclear-tipped ICBM that could reach the U.S. homeland.
Kim Jong Un declared in December that his nuclear program was “complete.” But uncertainty over its scope has mounted as the North Korean leader vowed recently to dismantle the country’s main testing ground for nuclear bombs — a gesture apparently meant to smooth the path to next months summit with Mr. Trump.
Satellite imagery in recent days showed what appears to have dismantling activity at some structures around main Punggye-ri underground nuclear test site, where a powerful bomb was detonated beneath a mountain in September 2017.
Reuters reported that an engineering office, as well as buildings housing an compressor used to pump air into tunnels where bombs were detonated appear to have been razed at the site. But, while the Kim regime has said it plans to use explosives to actually collapse the tunnels, a limited number of outside media, and so far no international inspectors, have been invited to witness the site’s closure.
The intelligence official who spoke anonymously with The Times expressed skepticism, asserting that the developments at Punggye-ri could be a ruse to confuse Washington.
“When a bomb is tested its dropped down a tube, one tube in a broader mountain range that has a lot of tubes in it,” the official said.
“So when people say one test site is being dismantled, it doesn’t mean the whole mountain is going away. It’s like an ant mound with lots of entrance points. If one entrance point collapses, the mountain still exists.”
North Korea on Wednesday appeared to signal its early concessions, including the release of three Korean-American prisoners to visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week, were not being sufficiently appreciated, and that U.S. claims that a policy of “maximum pressure” to isolate the regime and cripple its economy had forced the North to negotiate were a “miscalculation.”
“We have already stated our intention for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and made clear on several occasions that the precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to the anti-[North Korea] policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States,” the regime said in a statement. “But now, the U.S. is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of [North Korea] as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure.”
North Korea in recent public statements has talked about “progressive and synchronous” steps with the U.S. on a path to full denuclearization, raising the prospect of a lengthy prospect and one in which U.S. concessions — including reducing the U.S. troop presence in South Korea and security guarantees for the North — would be required to keep the peace process going.
Mr. Pillsbury said the North Koreans see what they’re doing at the site as a concession and they’d like the Trump administration to reciprocate.
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