TOKYO — North Korea has a message for U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of next month’s summit: Don’t listen to your new hard-line national security adviser, John Bolton.
After announcing early Wednesday that it was pulling out of high-level talks with Seoul because of a new round of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the North took aim at Bolton and said it might have to reconsider whether to proceed with the summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because it doubts how seriously Washington actually wants peaceful dialogue.
The moves give the clearest indication yet of North Korea’s mindset heading into the summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
The U.S. military is bracing for a possible strike in Syria. Preparations for a high-risk North Korea summit are barreling forward. The White House staff is on edge, unsure who will be fired next, and when. And the national security team is holding its breath to see whether their new leader will be a shock to the system.
Though North Korea has been for the most part silent about its intentions for the meeting, the announcements underscore two of its biggest concerns — the future of the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and claims coming out of Washington lately that sanctions and Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy are what drove Kim to the negotiating table.
But defanging Bolton, the most militant of Trump’s advisers, is now also apparently a major priority.
“We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him,” North Korea said of Bolton in a statement attributed by state-run media to senior Foreign Ministry official Kim Kye Gwan.
Any peace deal with North Korea is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the 23,000 U.S. troops deployed on the peninsula.
A hard-liner’s hard-liner, Bolton was a key adviser to President George W. Bush when the U.S. tore up a nuclear agreement with North Korea in 2002. The North conducted its first nuclear test four years later. In August, Bolton defended the idea of a preventive military strike against the North, and last month suggested negotiations in 2004 that led to the shipping of nuclear components to the U.S. from Libya under Moammar Gadhafi would be a good model for North Korea as well.
Not surprisingly, North Korea bristles at the mention of Libya.
Gadhafi, who agreed to abandon his fledgling nuclear program, was later deposed after a 42-year reign and was killed in 2011 — the year Kim assumed power in North Korea — while his country spiraled into chaos.
North Korea’s statement Wednesday did not directly criticize Trump, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has made two trips to the North to lay the groundwork for the summit. Instead, it stressed that North Korea welcomes Trump’s position for ending the deep-rooted hostilities between their countries and concluded that if the Trump administration approaches the summit with a sincere desire to improve relations, the result will be positive.
It warned, however, of a “ridiculous comedy” if Trump listens to Bolton and “quasi-patriots” who insist on “abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterward.”
“We have already stated our intention for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States,” the statement said, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“But now, the U.S. is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of the DPRK as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure,” it added.
While Seoul and Washington welcomed Pyongyang’s declaration on Saturday to suspend further intercontinental ballistic missile tests and shut down its nuclear test site, the past is littered with failure.
North Korea’s dual moves Wednesday can be seen as an attempt by Kim to fortify his position.
In an announcement issued hours before the anti-Bolton statement, North Korea said it was pulling out of talks in the Demilitarized Zone that were supposed to be held later Wednesday with senior South Korean officials because of the military maneuvers that began earlier this week.
Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, but the current exercises, called “Max Thunder,” are particularly sensitive from North Korea’s perspective because they reportedly involve nuclear capable B-52 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters.
This year, the exercises have been postponed, scaled back, probably shortened and certainly toned down. They have not, however, been canceled. Here’s why:
The North fears the aircraft could be used to carry out a pre-emptive nuclear attack or a precision strike that would target Kim and his top lieutenants — the kind of thing Bolton advocated publicly before taking his current office.
But Kim has already won one round of bargaining on the military front.
At South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s request, Washington agreed to delay the much larger “Foal Eagle/Key Resolve” drills in the spring because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. Kim told visiting South Korean officials in March that he understood the drills would take place but expressed hope that they would be modified once the situation on the Korean Peninsula had stabilized, according to South Korea’s government.
North Korea’s announcement regarding the talks on Wednesday was in keeping with that position. And by playing the doves against the hawks in Seoul and Washington, it, too, might have been made with Bolton in mind.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Eric Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @EricTalmadge
This story has been corrected to fix spelling of former Libyan leader’s name to Gadhafi.