On March 15, 2019 North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui gave a news conference in Pyongyang. She voiced for the first time Pyongyang’s official position on the talks which had been held with the United States two weeks ago. It is well known that the Hanoi summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump did not produce any concrete agreement and the leaders went their separate ways.
It may well be remembered that in Hanoi, North Korea offered the US an exchange that the US with good reason considered to be unequal. Pyongyang suggested shutting down its nuclear center in Yongbyon in exchange for the lifting of all economic sanctions. If the US agreed to this, it would have to cease completely exerting pressure on North Korea. Sanctions on the sales of weapons and luxury items would still be in place which is something Pyongyang has no problem coping with. On the contrary, if such an exchange were to have taken place, the DPRK would still keep hold of at least half of its uranium enrichment facilities plus all its ballistic missile capacities and all its existing warheads.
Commenting on Choe’s remarks in Pyongyang some members of the media reported that North Korea was ostensibly considering suspending any further talks with the US on the subject of denuclearization. Indeed, she did actually make a similar statement. In part, she also said: “We have no intention to make any concessions when it comes to what the US requirements are [set forth in Hanoi] in any form, not to mention a desire to conduct such talks.” However, after a closer analysis of her statement it is evident that things are far from being simple.
First of all, the statement that Choe made includes numerous compliments paid to Donald Trump, emphasizing wherever possible that there is complete mutual understanding between the two supreme leaders and that personal relations between Kim and Trump are “surprisingly good.” It is impossible to interpret such remarks as being pure politeness something rarely seen when it comes to North Korean diplomacy. On the contrary, Pyongyang has always managed to throw insults at its current opponents with amazing ease. Incidentally, (in a recent private conversation with my acquaintance), Choe herself described this stylistic peculiarity of Pyongyang diplomacy with a share of self-irony as “our verbal equivalent of a nuclear deterrence.” Not so very long ago Trump himself was called a “mentally deranged US dotard” in official North Korean documents without any signs of embarrassment.
Second, the failure to come to any agreement in Hanoi is unequivocally blamed on President Trump’s entourage, or to be more precise on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Choe claims on behalf of Pyongyang that they are responsible for the lack of any results at the summit meeting in Hanoi.
Third, during her remarks Choe hints that Pyongyang may revise its moratorium on nuclear tests and the launching of ballistic missiles that was introduced in November 2017 and has been repeatedly reaffirmed ever since.
Fourth, Choe stated that Kim himself will in the near future voice the official position concerning the talks with the US.
Contrary to what the media has been writing, this paints rather a different picture, notably that Pyongyang would not only welcome further talks with the US but is more than eager to continue them. However, it is not going to make any unilateral concessions and understands that the US does not seem to be willing to compromise by making a demand on immediate and complete disarmament, which is unacceptable for the DPRK. In turn, nobody in Pyongyang is going to give up nuclear weapons once and for all but is ready to make certain compromises and, moreover, is striving to do just this.
This is why the DPRK decided to remind the US that if the Americans do not want to continue the talks and make any reasonable concessions, Pyongyang could once again create considerable problems for Washington (and personally for President Trump). Before the introduction of the moratorium in 2017, North Korea successfully tested two new generation intercontinental missiles capable of hitting targets in the US. Now Trump keeps writing in his endless tweets that these launches were halted due to his diplomatic efforts (needless to say he doesn’t tell his voters that the production of these missiles continues).
However, now Choe is hinting on behalf of North Korea that the moratorium may be cancelled. Considering what role it plays when it comes to the foreign policy propaganda of Trump and his supporters, the launch of an ICBM may become an unpleasant surprise for the White House and seriously reduce Trump’s ratings.
Curiously, Pyongyang may achieve a similar effect without violating its commitments. Thus, the DPRK may conduct tests of medium-range ballistic missiles that are not formally covered by the moratorium. Or, alternately it may use an intercontinental missile as a carrier for putting an artificial satellite into orbit (the DPRK has not committed itself to renouncing its “peaceful space” program).
Of course, Pyongyang does not want to aggravate tension on the Korean Peninsula, in part because it considers Donald Trump unpredictable. Everyone remembers how he threatened the DPRK with war if it does not give up its nuclear weapons.
True, it should be pointed out that right now a flare-up of tension is not as dangerous as it would have been back in 2017. For example, China has once again resumed its policy of being cautious and it has been measuring out its support for the DPRK, while power in Seoul belongs to left-wing nationalists that have generally a good attitude towards North Korea and would like to pursue a policy of peaceful co-existence. That said, it is talks that are the goal of Pyongyang. Naturally, it should be remembered that the aim of these talks is not nuclear disarmament (that is absolutely unacceptable for the DPRK) but some compromise deal that would provide for the restriction of nuclear arms in exchange for political and economic concessions.
Thus, Choe’s remarks (and the statement that may be voiced by the Supreme Leader in the near future) are a means of diplomatic pressure that is aimed at trying to get President Trump to sit down at the negotiating table. It is suggested to him that his inclination to listen to the tough line supporters (primarily John Bolton) and a reluctance to give way may seriously put him in serious trouble. Only time will tell whether he is ready to grasp this hint.