The attack dogs have been let loose.
That much was clear from the stark message North Korea delivered this week after the collapse of Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam last month: Kim is considering abandoning nuclear negotiations with the United States and resuming the nuclear and missile tests that brought the two countries to the brink of war early on in the Trump administration.
Just as important as the message was the messenger. North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, delivered the warning during a briefing in Pyongyang on Friday with foreign diplomats and journalists. Choe is an experienced diplomat (and a former English-language interpreter) who has dealt with Americans in official and unofficial talks for years. She knows the America file cold. But she also has a reputation for fiery remarks—like when she vowed to “respond to fire with fire” at the height of military tensions with the United States in 2017, or that time she nearly deep-sixed the president’s first summit with North Korea’s leader in 2018 by denouncing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy” and threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” with the United States.
Choe’s principal foil in the Trump administration is National Security Adviser John Bolton, who prompted her outburst against Pence in the first place by calling on the North Koreans to ship their whole nuclear program to the United States the way Libya did. Bolton has been arguing since he served in the George W. Bush administration that North Korea’s leaders have no intention of negotiating away their nuclear weapons and that the only way to remove the grave threat their arsenal poses to the United States is through regime change brought about by economic pressure or a preventive war. (He’s mostly refrained from expressing these views since joining the Trump administration last April.)
And Bolton, whom Choe blamed on Friday for poisoning the Vietnam summit with “gangster-like” demands for North Korea to commit to full denuclearization before receiving sanctions relief, has been sicced on the North Koreans as well since the showdown in Vietnam. The national security adviser, who largely deferred (at least publicly) to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on diplomacy with North Korea, has emerged in recent weeks as the administration’s most prominent spokesperson on the nuclear talks.
Zipping around the Sunday shows, he’s urged North Korea to relinquish all its weapons of mass destruction as part of a “big deal” and pledged to maintain and perhaps escalate economic sanctions against Pyongyang if Kim doesn’t. He’s done all this with relish. “The North Koreans were very disappointed we didn’t buy their bad deal,” he said of Kim’s offer in Vietnam to dismantle his main nuclear complex in exchange for relief from most sanctions. “That’s life in the big city.”
It’s the kind of barbed rhetoric that Bolton and Choe avoided when their bosses were championing the results of their first summit in Singapore last year and promising to deliver a breakthrough when they met again.
The unmuzzling of the attack dogs on each side is a reminder that Trump and Kim are each contending with a hard-line faction at home that views the diplomacy they’re engaged in as a hopeless and dangerous endeavor. As Choe noted this week, Kim decided to press ahead with diplomacy in Vietnam despite the fact that military leaders are petitioning him not to give up his nuclear program.
But it’s also a sign of the paradoxical outcome of a summit that was intended to dramatically defuse tensions between North Korea and the United States: Each side has come away with the recognition that despite all the pageantry, there’s a huge gulf between their positions, and with the conviction that exerting pressure is the key to getting the other side to come around to its preferred approach. The Americans think sanctions will force the North Koreans to fully renounce their nuclear program. The North Koreans think the further development of their nuclear arsenal—through ongoing production of nuclear material, recent reversals of moves to dismantle a rocket site, and now the specter of more tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons—will compel the Americans to settle, for the time being at least, for something far short of full denuclearization. Tough talk from Bolton and Choe is a form of pressure.
There is a very fine line, however, between applying pressure and shattering a delicate and deteriorating diplomatic process. As Chung-in Moon, a foreign-policy adviser to South Korea’s president, wrote this week, citing the way in which the spat between Choe and Pence nearly sabotaged the first Trump-Kim summit, “Mutual restraint in word and deed is essential for the resuscitation of negotiation. The surest way to derail the negotiations and precipitate a potential catastrophe would be for North Korea to engage in any nuclear or missile tests.”