False starts, failures in diplomacy with North Korea

(AP) — No, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn’t killing his summit with President Donald Trump. Or at least, he’s highly unlikely to.
Pyongyang breaking off a high-level meeting with Seoul and threatening to scrap next month’s historic summit with Washington over regular allied military drills is seen as a move by Kim to gain leverage and establish that he’s entering the crucial nuclear negotiations from a position of strength.
Washington and Seoul, which have no intentions to overpay for whatever Kim brings to the table, have been saying strengthened international sanctions forced Kim into talks after a flurry of weapons tests. Pyongyang has now countered by saying it won’t be unilaterally pressured into abandoning its nukes, analysts say.
Nonetheless, North Korea’s surprise declaration on Wednesday was a fresh reminder of many false starts and failures that derailed previous diplomatic attempts to resolve the decades-long standoff. It’s also a frustrating development for South Korea, which has been selling last month’s inter-Korean summit — where the leaders issued a vague vow for the “complete denuclearization” of their peninsula — as a meaningful breakthrough in peace.
A look at the history of negotiations between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang:
The United States reached a landmark nuclear agreement with North Korea in 1994 following months of war fears triggered by the North’s threat to turn its stockpile of nuclear fuel into bombs.
Under the “Agreed Framework,” North Korea halted construction of two reactors the United States believed were for nuclear weapons production in exchange for two alternative nuclear power reactors that could be used to provide electricity but not bomb fuel, and 500,000 metric tons of annual oil supply. Pyongyang constantly complained about delayed oil shipment and the construction of the reactors that were never delivered. Washington criticized the North’s pursuit of ballistic missile capability.
The deal collapsed in 2002 after North Korea admitted it had been running a clandestine nuclear program using enriched uranium.
It didn’t take long for the United States to be roped back into talks with North Korea, but this time in a six-party forum that also included China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan.
After months of tense negotiations that began in August 2003, the North accepted a deal in September 2005 to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security, economic and energy benefits.
However, disagreements between Washington and Pyongyang over financial sanctions imposed on the North temporarily derailed the six-nation talks before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.
The disarmament talks resumed a few weeks later and the six governments in February 2007 reached a deal where North Korea would receive an aid package worth about $400 million in return for disabling its nuclear facilities and allowing international inspectors to verify the process.
But a final attempt to complete an agreement to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program fell through in December2008 when the North refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods.
The six-nation talks have stalled since then and the North conducted another nuclear test in May 2009.
Since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between the Koreas have been marked by wild swings, with three historic summits mixed with hostility that often pushed the rivals to the brink of a major military conflict.
The rivals most recently came near a military clash in 2015 following land mine blasts blamed on North Korea that maimed two South Korean soldiers. The Koreas avoided disaster with a last-minute deal in which the North offered a vague regret over the blasts in exchange for the South temporarily stopping anti-Pyongyang broadcasts over the border.
The agreement led to a high-level meeting between the Koreas at the northern border town of Kaesong in December. But those talks fell apart after the South refused to agree to restart joint tours to the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain resort, which were suspended in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist.
A month later, North Korea went on to conduct its fourth nuclear test, which marked the start of a torrid run in weapons tests that peaked in 2017, when the country detonated a purported thermonuclear warhead and flight-tested three developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to strike the U.S. mainland.
Wednesday was hardly the first time the North called off an important inter-Korean event at the last minute. In 2013, North Korea abruptly canceled reunions for families separated by the Korean War just days before they were scheduled to be held to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint military drills between Seoul and Washington, which the North claim are invasion rehearsals.
Months after taking power following the death of his father, Kim in 2012 reached a major agreement with the United States to suspend nuclear weapons and missile tests and uranium enrichment in exchange for food aid. But the deal was killed just weeks later after the North launched a long-range rocket in a failed attempt to deliver a satellite, which outside governments saw as a disguised test to advance ballistic missile capability.
Even amid the North’s diplomatic outreach of recent weeks, there are lingering doubts on whether Kim would fully relinquish the nukes he likely sees as his only guarantee of survival.
Some analysts believe that Kim would seek a deal where he gives up his ICBMs but retains some of his shorter arsenal, which might potentially satisfy Trump but drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. Or he might try to drag out the process and wait out the Trump administration, which has provided a credible threat of military force against the North.
Whatever his true intentions are, Kim will almost certainly show up for his talks with Trump in Singapore on June 12, analysts say. The past few months have seen the formerly reclusive leader belly-laughing with South Korean President Moon and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and declaring a halt to nuclear and ICBM tests while inviting foreign journalists to witness the dismantling of his nuclear test site scheduled for next week.
He has simply come too far to go fully back. He also desperately needs sanctions relief to build his economy. In Washington, he sees a president who seems eager to prove his deal-making skills and thinks less of the traditional alliance with Seoul than his predecessors did. In Seoul, he sees a dovish liberal leader who’s eager to revive Seoul’s “Sunshine” policy of the 2000s that led to temporary rapprochement and joint economic projects. Kim likely knows he probably isn’t getting a better shot than this.
“North Korea is responding to the Washington-Seoul drills based on internal principles and routines,” said Kim Dong-yub, a former South Korean military official who’s now an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “The North is not trying to subvert the table for talks.”North Korea on Wednesday threatened to scrap a historic summit next month between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump, saying it has no interest in a “one-sided” affair meant to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.
The warning by North Korea’s first vice foreign minister came hours after the country abruptly canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea to protest U.S.-South Korean military exercises that Pyongyang has long claimed are invasion rehearsals.
The surprise moves appear to cool what had been an unusual flurry of outreach from a country that last year conducted a provocative series of weapons tests that had many fearing the region was on the edge of war. Analysts said it’s unlikely that North Korea intends to scuttle all diplomacy. More likely, they said, is that Pyongyang wants to gain leverage ahead of the talks between Kim and Trump, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
“We are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting,” the first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, said in a statement carried by state media.
He criticized recent comments by Trump’s top security adviser, John Bolton, and other U.S. officials who have said the North should follow the “Libyan model” of nuclear disarmament and provide a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement.” He also took issue with U.S. views that the North should fully relinquish its biological and chemical weapons.
Some analysts say bringing up Libya, which dismantled its rudimentary nuclear program in the 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief, jeopardizes progress in negotiations with the North. Kim Jong Un took power weeks after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s gruesome death at the hands of rebel forces amid a popular uprising in October 2011. The North has frequently used Gadhafi’s death to justify its own nuclear development in the face of perceived U.S. threats.
The North’s warning Wednesday fits a past North Korean pattern of raising tensions to bolster its positions ahead of negotiations with Washington and Seoul. But the country also has a long history of scrapping deals with its rivals at the last minute.
In 2013, North Korea abruptly canceled reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War just days before they were scheduled to begin to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint drills between Seoul and Washington. In 2012, the North conducted a prohibited long-range rocket launch weeks after it agreed to suspend weapons tests in return for food assistance.
On Wednesday, senior officials from the two Koreas were to sit down at a border village to discuss how to implement their leaders’ recent agreements to reduce military tensions along their heavily fortified border and improve overall ties. But hours before the meeting was to start, the North informed the South that it would “indefinitely suspend” the talks, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
In a pre-dawn dispatch, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, called the two-week Max Thunder drills, which began Monday and reportedly include about 100 aircraft, an “intended military provocation” and an “apparent challenge” to last month’s summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, when the leaders met at the border in their countries’ third summit talks since their formal division in 1948.
“The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it’s causing with South Korean authorities,” the North said. “We’ll keenly monitor how the United States and South Korean authorities will react.”
Kim Dong-yub, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said the North isn’t trying to undermine the Trump-Kim talks. The North’s reaction is more like a “complaint over Trump’s way of playing the good cop and bad cop game with (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo and Bolton,” he said.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for inter-Korean affairs, called North Korea’s move “regrettable” and urged a quick return to talks. The Defense Ministry said the drills with the United States would go on as planned.
Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war. Much larger springtime drills took place last month without the North’s typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests, though Washington and Seoul toned down those exercises.
The KCNA dispatch said the U.S. aircraft mobilized for the drills include nuclear-capable B-52 bombers and stealth F-22 fighter jets, two of the U.S. military assets it has previously said are aimed at launching nuclear strikes on the North. Seoul has said F-22s are involved in the drills, but has not confirmed whether B-52s are taking part.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department emphasized that Kim had previously indicated he understood the need and purpose of the U.S. continuing its long-planned exercises with South Korea. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. had not heard anything directly from Pyongyang or Seoul that would change that.
“We will continue to go ahead and plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Nauert said.
U.S. Army Col. Rob Manning said the current exercise is part of the U.S. and South Korea’s “routine, annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness.” Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said the purpose of Max Thunder and exercise Foal Eagle — another training event — is to enhance the two nations’ abilities to operate together to defend South Korea.
“The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” Manning said.
Washington and Seoul delayed the earlier round of springtime drills because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which saw Kim send his sister to the opening ceremonies.
Kim told visiting South Korean officials in March that he “understands” the drills would take place and expressed hope that they’ll be modified once the situation on the peninsula stabilizes, according to the South Korean government.
Despite Kim’s outreach, some experts were skeptical about whether he would completely give up a nuclear program that he had pushed so hard to build. The North previously vowed to continue nuclear development unless the United States pulls its 28,500 troops out of South Korea and withdraws its so-called “nuclear umbrella” security guarantee to South Korea and Japan as a condition for its nuclear disarmament.
Wednesday’s threat could also be targeted at showing a domestic audience that Kim is willing to stand up to Washington. Kim has repeatedly told his people that his nukes are a “powerful treasured sword” that can smash U.S. hostility.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s military said North Korea was moving ahead with plans to close its nuclear test site next week, an assessment backed by U.S. researchers who say satellite images show the North has begun dismantling facilities at the site.
The site’s closure was set to come before the Kim-Trump summit, which had been shaping up as a crucial moment in the decades-long push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North, which is closing in on the ability to viably target the mainland United States with its long-range nuclear-armed missiles.