SEOUL—Let’s try and get this straight. Wasn’t it just last week that North Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, Kim Kye Gwan, was lambasting President Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, for their “unilateral demands we give up nuclear weapons.” If they persisted in talking that way, he warned, “We will no longer have an interest in talks.”
Could it really be, the morning after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of a planned summit with Kim Jong Un, that this same official was talking like the shrewd two-or-more-faced negotiator that he was known to be for more than 10 years ago in talks with the U.S., when a nuclear deal failed? And that Trump was welcoming the “warm and productive” reaction? “Everybody plays games,” Trump said.
A senior White House official speaking to reporters Thursday expressed pique that the North Koreans had “simply stood us up” by not preparing for the summit. But the official, when asked, also doubted the summit could be salvaged, owing to a more substantive gulf between Washington and Pyongyang. It was imperative, the official said, that the “agenda” of the meeting “is clear in the minds of those two leaders,” citing North Korea’s statements over the past two months that full denuclearization is not an option for Pyongyang. Closing that gap in the time necessary to prepare for the Singapore summit was unlikely, the official continued, since “June 12 is in 10 minutes.”
Less than 18 hours later, Trump said: “It could even be the 12th.”
Hmmm. It’s far from clear that the gulf has been closed, the core issues resolved. Almost certainly that is not the case. But the North Koreans did some amazing Trump-stalking.
Reading the North Korean’s statement, it was as though Kim Kye Gwan thought secretly, at heart, almost as highly of Trump as he did of his own Respected Leader Kim. “We have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision, which any other U.S. presidents dared not, and made efforts for such a crucial event as the summit.”
Who knew? Who would have imagined Kim Kye Gwan was such a fan of Donald Trump even as South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, so eager for reconciliation and dialogue with the North, seemed almost in tears. Far from expressing his admiration for Trump, Moon on Friday was saying he found his decision “very perplexing, very regrettable.”
If only Trump would get on the phone with Kim Jong Un, Moon suggested, maybe they could patch things up and get together—if not on June 12 as previously planned, then later. Anything, he believed, to keep fading hopes alive.
(As The Daily Beast reported Thursday, a North Korean delegation stood up their White House counterparts at what was supposed to be a preparatory meeting for the summit last week, which may have been an early sign of collapsing communications, and a contributing factor making them worse.)
Kim Kye Gwan definitely shared Moon’s view of the need for a Trump-Kim summit, but was considerably more outspoken in his desire to make it somehow happen. Basically, he talked as if the summit might still be on—and all that remained was to pick up where Trump had left off.
So what if Trump in his letter to “Chairman Kim” had cited “remendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement” as evidence that a summit would never work. Oh please, Kim Kye Gwan argued, he knew another vice foreign minister, a woman named Choe Son Hui, had conveyed such feelings, but he personally believed Trump’s decision was “not consistent with the desire of humankind for peace and stability in the world, to say nothing of those in the Korean Peninsula.”
And what was all that quibbling about the definition of “denuclearization”? C’mon, Kim Kye Gwan was saying, “We even inwardly hoped that what is called ‘Trump formula’ would help clear both sides of their worries and comply with the requirements of our side and would be a wise way of substantial effect for settling the issue.”
Surely, he was asking, can’t we sit down and work this thing out?
In fact, Kim’s words, carried as an “authorized statement” in English by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, may not have been in vain. Just as reports of his remarks were getting read in Seoul, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on the phone to South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, intimating that a summit might still be possible, no one knew just when.
Or at least that was the version put out by South Korea’s foreign ministry. Pompeo, said the ministry, had assured her the U.S. had “a clear will” to pursue dialogue. She in turn had “emphasized the need to keep the momentum from the inter-Korean summit in April and the opportunity for negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. alive.”
As evidence, the ministry noted that Trump in his letter to Kim had said “many things can happen and a great opportunity lies ahead potentially.” Indeed, the ministry noted, Trump also said, “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”
It was that offer to call, of course, that had to have spurred Moon to urge Trump and Kim to get on the line right away. That and the fact that South Koreans at the highest level were convinced there had been a rift between Trump’s most trusted foreign-policy experts, Bolton and Pompeo.
The feeling here is that Bolton had been responsible for Trump’s sudden decision, just two days after having seen Moon in the White House and assured him of close coordination in whatever they did. Look, said an official, it was Bolton whom Kim Kye Gwan had singled out in his strongly worded statement of last week.
This time, though, the vice foreign minister was hardly in attack mode. He did not mention Bolton, and he spoke no ill of American foreign policy or even of demands for CVID, complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.
Kim Kye Gwan did not deign to touch on that issue, which clearly would be the focal point of any future meeting. Rather, he wanted to show how everyone on his side was terribly sorry about a “sudden and unilateral announcement” that was “something unexpected to us.”
“We cannot but feel great regret for it,” he said, and it was “hard to guess the reasons,” but he had an idea. “It could be that he lacked the will for the summit or he might not have felt confident.”
Surely those words were intended as a challenge to Trump to show he could do it as a strong man with nothing to fear. The negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, seemed to know how to hit Trump on his ego, which, after all, is a very big target.
—with additional reporting by Donald Kirk in Seoul and Spencer Ackerman in New York