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