SEOUL—In elaborate game of smoke and mirrors being played by Washington and Pyongyang, President Donald Trump suddenly had the last word. On Thursday he announced in a letter to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un posted by the White House that he is cancelling the summit between them planned for Singapore on June 12. Trump supporters had touted it as his ticket to the Nobel Peace Prize. But it looks as if that is not to be.
At least, not yet. Trump didn’t slam the door completely: “I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.” And three hours later in a ceremony at the White House, he cast a ray of hope, saying, “It’s possible the existing summit can take place—or a summit at a later date”
Mainly, though, in his remarks at the White House and as in his letter to Kim, he was talking tough. "Our strong sanctions will continue and the maximum pressure campaign will continue,” he vowed. “We will never compromise the safety and security of the USA.”
His letter to Kim was most menacing when it came to the old my-button-is-bigger-than-your-button rhetoric. “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
The insults had cranked up in direct proportion to the Trump administration’s realization that the complete “denuclearization” it demanded was not something that would be decided going into the summit, or coming out. Which led to ever more exigent statements by administration officials, and increasing truculence by Kim’s government.
The North Korean propaganda machine went on overdrive spewing out rhetoric denouncing Vice President Mike Pence for having dared to echo President Trump raising the specter of the cruel fate that befell the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi if Kim Jong Un did not come around to a deal on his nukes. Pence neglected to mention that Gaddafi had actually given up his barely nascent nuclear program in 1993, to the applause of the U.S., Britain and others, before meeting his sad ending at the hands of a mob in the revolution that wiped out his regime eight years later.
Here's what Pence said on Fox that totally infuriated the North Koreans. "There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim doesn't make a deal." As for whether those words sound like a dire threat against Kim. "Pence responded, "I think it's more of a fact."
If baiting the North Koreans is what White House schemers see as a skillful negotiating strategy, probably they could not have come up with a better way to do it. A North Korean vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, came out with a statement in her own name in which she could simply not "suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice president."
What could be dumber than for "a political dummy" like him, said her statement, carried in English by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency, to compare North Korea, "a nuclear weapon state, to Libya, that had simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them." Naturally, she compared Pence's remarks to those of the national security adviser, John Bolton, who had suggested a week earlier that North Korea after giving up its nuclear program might submit to having its warheads and equipment transferred to the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge (Tennessee) National Laboratory for demolition. Pence, she said, "has again spat out nonsense" that North Korea "would follow in Libya's footstep."
After all the rhetoric was done, Choe had a message that had to have been carefully devised by the powers-that-be. "Whether the U.S. will meet us in a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the U.S." For her part, she said she would "put forward to our supreme leadership for reconsidering" the summit.
Interestingly, she said nothing about Trump, no insults, not even a mention. In other words, if Trump still wanted to sit down with Kim, he could do so. The message that glimmered off the mirrors through the smoke was that Kim really would rather not pull out of the Singapore tete-a-tete.
But Trump apparently wanted to make sure he cancelled first.
Earlier in the day, continuing to play around with the “positive” atmospherics of the past few months, North Korea welcomed 30 members of TV crews Thursday to the mountainous northeast of the country to witness, sort of, huge explosions evidently too hush-hush for actual nuclear experts to see or hear.
Mind you, the TV teams from the United States, Britain, China, Russia and South Korea, were not allowed to broadcast live the sight or sounds of the blasts destroying what was left of the North's nuclear test site at a remote village named Punggye-ri. They had plenty to report by phone though after spending 10 hours up there looking at three of the site’s four tunnels.
CNN’s Will Ripley, one of two US TV correspondents on the scene along with Ben Tracy of CBS, said “we couldn’t actually step into the tunnels” but saw ”as far as the eye could see” through the doors that “they were rigged with explosives” the size of soccer balls. After watching the explosions, they got a closer look to see the wreckage from the outside of three of the four tunnels at the site. The fourth, they were told, had been destroyed earlier.
“It was surreal to see it in person,” said CBS’ Tracy, like Ripley on the phone on the long train ride back to the southeastern port of Wonsan. “They blew up the three remaining test tunnels at that site. They claimed two of the tunnels were still usable, that they could have conducted further tests there, but they put in explosives and blew them up.”
After seeing the tunnels up close, said Tracy, “they removed us to viewing stands farther away and blew them up,” after which they “told us to walk back up towards the tunnel to see it in person, to verify that indeed it had been closed.”
For the TV people, the day at Punggye-ri climaxed a journey that had begun Wednesday on a chartered flight from Beijing to Wonsan for the highly choreographed opportunity to see the site where the North Koreans had staged all six of their nuclear tests, the last and by far the biggest last September. The North Koreans, said Ripley, hailed the whole show as “evidence of their commitment to transparency to denuclearization ahead of the planned summit in Singapore” but he and Tracy both conceded they were hardly expert witnesses.
"There was no one on site, no outside expert, to verify that what North Korea claims it has done—closing its nuclear test site—has actually occurred,” said Tracy. “We did ask our government minder if they're going to allow somebody in to do that, and he said he doesn't think so because they don't feel that they need somebody else to say that they've done what they say they have now done."
Oh yes, at least one of the visiting crews, having thought to bring along a personal radiation detector, had to leave that at Wonsan too. Getting there had to have been at least half the fun. From Wonsan it was a 12-hour ride on a train chugging at about 25 miles an hour on antiquated tracks, and then a rocky four-hour bus ride into the mountains, after which they had to hike another hour. So what could be left to see?
The site was already basically unusable, thanks in large measure to that blast in September that destroyed tunnels and equipment, knocked off slabs of the mountain in which the blast tunnel was dug, sent tremors for miles around and presumably killed people too. No wonder the North Koreans banned experts and analysts and anyone who might be able to figure out what really had happened. Better to have images of the explosion -- not as it happened by after the TV people had made it down the mountain and back to safety in Wonsan and then Beijing.
Not to worry, surmised the experts at 38 North, the Washington think tank that loves to produce reports, complete with satellite imagery, of whatever the North is up to. Refuting "media reports" that "dismantling buildings and closing the tunnels" would be "tantamount to 'destruction of evidence,' a commentary by Frank Pabian, a one-time chief inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency assured everyone "the forensic evidence will outlast any explosions that may be used to collapse or seal the test tunnels." Anyway, he added, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, if it ever gets the chance to do an onsite inspection, has "the tools to conduct drill-back operations into the various test cavities to determine the composition of the materials used in each device that was tested."
Good luck with that. If anything was clear from the nature of the journalists' expedition to Punggye-ri, it was that the North Koreans were not about to let anyone do any testing anywhere, whether there or at Yongbyon or any of the numerous caves and tunnels scattered around the country where presumably they've got much else to hide, including their program for producing warheads with highly enriched uranium. Although Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, some years ago was invited to see a North Korean HEU facility, it's assumed the North is concealing most of what it’s got.