North Korean pull­back seen as cal­cu­lated move Bolton’s ‘Libya-style’ sur­ren­der re­jected

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY GUY TAY­LOR

North Korea’s abrupt threat last 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 ad­min­is­tra­tion and to buy time to hide its nu­clear weapons.

U.S. of­fi­cials say Py­ongyang’s threat — con­veyed so far only via state-con­trolled me­dia — likely was also driven by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s need to show his do­mes­tic au­di­ence that he won’t yield 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 sign­ing agree­ments it has 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 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 Washington and Seoul by sur­prise, Py­ongyang seized on joint U.S.-South Korean mil­i­tary ex­er­cises un­der­way as the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to can­cel a planned meet­ing of North and South Korean of­fi­cials, raise ques­tions about the pro­posed June 12 Kim-Trump sum­mit in Singapore, and hurl in­vec­tive at the U.S. govern­ment — and new Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser John R. Bolton by name — for sug­gest­ing that the North must com­plete its de­nu­cle­ariza­tion quickly.

Py­ongyang’s of­fi­cial news agency pub­lished a state­ment last week that went specif­i­cally af­ter Mr. Bolton, a long­time skep­tic of talks with the North, for say­ing re­peat­edly in re­cent me­dia ap­pear­ances that the “Libya model” of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion would be the best tem­plate for a deal with North Korea.

Mr. Bolton was re­fer­ring to the rel­a­tively quick deal that 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 — in ex­change for sanc­tions re­lief and the prom­ise of nor­mal­ized re­la­tions with the West.

The prob­lem, from North Korea’s per­spec­tive: Gad­hafi’s nu­clear-free 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 Korean Vice For­eign Min­is­ter Kim Kye-gwan, in the first com­ment from 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 vice for­eign min­is­ter said.

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials told The Times that 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 of ex­pe­ri­ence in nav­i­gat­ing the tor­tu­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions with the U.S. and its al­lies.

One of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said the fact that 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 au­tho­rized a string of con­cil­ia­tory moves to 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 an­a­lyst and author fo­cused on China and North Korea at the Hud­son In­sti­tute.

“This was North Korea fore­clos­ing one op­tion, the Libya op­tion, ahead of the Trump-Kim sum­mit,” said Mr. Pills­bury.

“But there are still many op­tions open,” he said, sug­gest­ing that true de­nu­cle­ariza­tion that takes more than a few months will be re­quired for deal­ing with North Korea’s pro­gram, which is far more vast and com­plex than it was in 2009, when talks to­ward 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 up­front, but we’re not talk­ing 24 hours. It’s more like at least a year.”

Find­ing ant holes

In ad­di­tion to a plu­to­nium fac­tory, North Korea is be­lieved to have more than 10 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.

Af­ter a se­ries of tests that sent U.S.North Korean ten­sions soar­ing dur­ing 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 onto 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 month’s sum­mit with Mr. Trump.

Satel­lite im­agery in re­cent days shows what ap­pears to have dis­man­tling ac­tiv­ity at some struc­tures around the main Pung­gye-ri un­der­ground nu­clear test site, where a pow­er­ful bomb was det­o­nated be­neath a moun­tain in Septem­ber.

Reuters re­ported that an engi­neer­ing of­fice, as well as build­ings hous­ing a 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 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, it’s 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 that its early con­ces­sions, in­clud­ing the re­lease of three Korean-Amer­i­can pris­on­ers to vis­it­ing Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, were not 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 process 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.

Mr. Pills­bury said the North Kore­ans see what they are do­ing at the site as a con­ces­sion and they would like the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­cip­ro­cate.

“In­stead, what they’ve been get­ting is John Bolton talk­ing about the Libya model,” he said. “So they re­sponded with the threat from one of their own high-level of­fi­cials.”


South Kore­ans were watch­ing ac­tions in the North last week as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion held out hope that a his­toric June 12 sum­mit in Singapore would pro­ceed as sched­uled.

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