North Korea flipped on the US on Tuesday with a series of statements bashing President Donald Trump’s administration and actions seemingly out of nowhere — but it may be because the US called its bluff.
Media from Pyongyang on Tuesday complained about a host of issues. They objected to the US demanding the complete denuclearization of North Korea, about unsavory comments made by Trump officials, and about US and South Korean military drills.
But all of those issues are old news, and there may well be a different strategy at play.
The US has always demanded North Korea denuclearize if it wants to normalize relations and talk. The comment National Security Adviser John Bolton made about Libya which seemed to set North Korea off happened weeks ago.
The specific military drill North Korea threatened to cancel its meeting with Trump over had already been going on for days, and before that, two other massive drills had taken place in April and May with hardly a peep from Pyongyang.
In past months, Kim reportedly said he “understands” why the drills are going on, and went forward with peace talks without asking for them to be toned down.
North Korea complained specifically about B-52 nuclear-capable bombers taking part in the military drills. But a Pentagon official told Business Insider that the bombers were never slated to participate in the drills.
Additionally, North Korea invited journalists to observe the closure of its nuclear testing site after the drills had already begun.
But there is a possible motivation for North Korea’s apparent about-face: The US reportedly demanded swift action on denuclearization, and North Korea might be bluffing.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered to take North Korea off the state sponsors of terror list if it would ship some of its missiles and nuclear warheads overseas within six months, Japan’s Asahi newspaper reported.
Asahi’s report follows Bolton suggesting North Korean nukes go to a nuclear facility in Oakridge, Tennessee and South Korean media reporting that Pompeo asked Kim to send five nuclear devices to France to be dismantled.
If Kim Jong Un went through with that, then the US would consider issuing a joint statement with Pyongyang guaranteeing Kim’s regime’s safety, the Asahi said.
“The US is trumpeting as if it would offer economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nuke,” one of Pyongyang’s rebuking statements said.
Did the US call North Korea’s bluff?
For North Korea, handing over even a few of its limited nuclear warheads to US control would represent a concrete step towards denuclearizing, and would demonstrate its sincerity to the US.
For the US, asking to get its hands on North Korean nukes before the summit either proves Kim is for real or calls his bluff.
Until now, North Korea has only offered reversible denuclearization steps, like destroying a test site that it can simply fix later.
The US insists on a front-loaded approach to denuclearization, where North Korea starts tearing down its nuclear infrastructure before the US eases of sanctions and international pressure.
Pyongyang did not object to these consistent demands until Tuesday, when the historic summit between Kim and Trump was less than a month away.
If North Korea wasn’t serious about denuclearizing, then it’s already won
Writing at NK News, Fyodor Tertitskiy, a North Korea expert concluded that Pyongyang’s rebukes have two likely explanations. First, that Kim may be using complaints as a bargaining tool. Second, that Kim actually wants to scrap the summit under a believable pretext that makes the US look bad.
North Korea has frequently expressed its desire to denuclearize and make peace in 2018, but it has done so several times in the past as well — and always pulled out at the last moment.
Experts who spoke to Business Insider consistently point to the real possibility that Kim does not want to part with his nuclear arsenal, and is merely playing the US by going along with its demands while improving relations with major trading partners.
“North Korea has already broken the solidarity behind US sanctions by warming relations with China and South Korea,” Phillip Lipscy, a Political Scientist at Stanford University wrote on the news app Newspicks.
“At this point, if they can walk away from US negotiations and put the blame on Trump, they’ve achieved victory.”