Moon and Trump are set to meet on Tuesday in Washington before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Trump on June 12 in Singapore.
Although a historic inter-Korean summit in late April raised hopes of reconciliation, North Korea showed a dramatic change in tone in recent days.
North Korea’s chief negotiator Ri Son Gwon said on Thursday it would not hold talks with South Korea unless their demands were met, taking issue with the U.S.-South Korean air combat drills known as Max Thunder. It came a day after it threatened to pull out of the summit with the United States.
Further dampening the mood, a spokesman for North Korea’s Red Cross Society demanded on Saturday that South Korea’s government should send North Korean female restaurant workers back to their home “without delay” to show the will to improve the inter-Korean ties, the North’s Korea Central News agency said.
A dozen North Korean restaurant workers came to South Korea in 2016 from China, and North Korea had urged to send them back claiming they were abducted by the South, even though the South has said the 12 workers decided to defect of their own free will.
Lee Dong-bok, a researcher at New Asia Research Institution, said part of the reason for the North’s demands of the repatriation is to divide South Korea’s public opinion over the 12 workers.
“It is also to pressure the Moon government to agree to its demand so that South Korea can keep up the momentum for the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting,” Lee said.
The big picture: The regime has hundreds of operatives around the world, helping the country side-step sanctions, per the Journal. The various schemes carried out by the operatives generated “hundreds of millions a dollars a year in cash and goods.” A former Asia diplomat at the State Department, Daniel Russel, told WSJ: “North Korea has an army of these people.”
Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping welcomed a delegation of high-ranking officials from North Korea on Wednesday, who reportedly visited Beijing to observe how China transitioned from a closed-off repressive communist state to its modern form—a repressive communist state profiting from business with major multi-national corporations.
The Chinese state news outlet Xinhua published photos on Wednesday of Xi welcoming “a friendship visiting group of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK)” to a meeting in Beijing. Prior to the meeting taking place, the Chinese Foreign Ministry informed reporters that China invited the group to visit “as a concrete step to implement the important consensus reached between General Secretary Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim Jong Un.”
“The visiting group will make some tours to learn about China’s achievements in economic development and reform and opening-up and promote an exchange of views between the WPK and the CPC on state governance,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang noted.
South Korea’s Joongang Ilboreported on Wednesday that the North Korean officials visited Beijing’s Zhongguancun neighborhood, which the newspaper described as “China’s Silicon Valley.”
“Observing China’s socialist economic system and exchanging experience about ruling the state was an important goal of the Workers’ Party officials’ visit,” an unnamed “source familiar with North Korean affairs” told Joongang. “They want to learn from China’s experience in maintaining a strong one-party Communist system while carrying out economic reform.”
According to the South Korean newspaper, this particular delegation will stay in China for a week and also “observe provincial and city governments and discuss economic cooperation with Chinese officials.”
The delegation’s stay is the latest such exchange between North Korea and its closest ally and largest trading partner, China. Dictator Kim Jong-un made Beijing the destination of his first ever trip outside of the country as head of state in March, where he declared that he and Xi had heralded in a “spring full of happiness.” Kim made a second trip to visit Xi last week, a surprise one-day trip in anticipation of a scheduled meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pyongyang shortly before Kim visited Dalian on his second trip to China, another sign that China is willing to make its top diplomats available to Kim so long as he remains loyal to Beijing.
As North Korea’s largest trading partner, China has the most to gain by the creation of economic opportunities for international companies in the rogue state. In anticipation of this, China’s state media reports that rent prices in the border city of Dandong “have nearly doubled since March,” when Kim made his first visit to China and the White House announced a plan to meet with Kim. Big-city buyers are reportedly triggering a “frenzy” of property purchases, hoping to cash in on the potential economic development occuring on the other side of the Yalu River following Kim’s meeting with Trump.
While the countries have had their public disagreements – North Korean state media referred to China as a “vassal” of the United States after China signed on to global sanctions against Pyongyang last year – China has been the most vocal voice on the world stage calling for international investment into enriching the Kim regime.
“Quick nuclear abandonment by Pyongyang is certainly a welcome thing. But such a sharp change could take place only if the US offers Pyongyang attractive rewards,” Chinese state newspaper Global Timesproposed in April. The United States, it argued, must pay Pyongyang to create “strategic mutual trust” between the two countries.
As part of a joint declaration with leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in, China urged that the United States “must actively take part in ensuring a bright future for North Korea through a security guarantee and support for its economic development.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has confirmed that the Trump administration is open to providing economic aid to North Korea so long as Pyongyang agrees to a full denuclearization process. That demand has caused strife on the North Korean side, which announced on Tuesday it was reconsidering the possibility of a Kim-Trump meeting in light of comments by National Security Advisor John Bolton that the administration would like to see a complete, Libya-style nuclear disarmament in North Korea.
“We’re still hopeful that the meeting will take place and we’ll continue down that path,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an interview Wednesday.
North Korea has said it may pull out of a summit with US President Donald Trump if the US unilaterally insists it gives up nuclear weapons.
The highly anticipated meeting between Mr Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is due to take place on 12 June.
But in an angry statement, North Korea’s vice-foreign minister accused the US of making reckless statements and of harbouring sinister intentions.
His statement pointed the finger at US National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Mr Bolton has suggested that North Korea could follow a Libyan model of nuclear disarmament, a model many analysts say will have alarmed the North considering the fate of the Libyan leadership.
Kim Kye-gwan said in his statement that this was “not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue”.
“It is essentially a manifestation of 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.”
“We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance towards him,” he added.
This represents a significant statement from an influential figure in the North Korean hierarchy.
The groundbreaking agreement to meet in the first place came about after North Korea said it was committed to denuclearising the Korean peninsula.
Exactly what that would entail has remained unclear, but North Korea has invited foreign media to witness the dismantling of its main nuclear test site later this month.
Mr Kim’s statement on Wednesday, carried by state news agency KCNA, said that if the US “corners us and unilaterally demands we give up nuclear weapons we will no longer have an interest in talks and will have to reconsider whether we will accept the upcoming DPRK-US summit”.
Mr Kim said North Korea “had high hopes that the summit would lead to the easing of the situation on the Korean Peninsula and count as a big step to build a great future”.
“However, it is very unfortunate that the U.S. is provoking us ahead of the summit by spitting out ludicrous statements.”
He warned: “If President Trump follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, he will be recorded as more tragic and unsuccessful president than his predecessors, far from his initial ambition to make unprecedented success.”
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s first vice foreign minister says the country has no interest in a summit with the United States if it’s going to be a “one-sided” affair where it’s pressured to give up its nukes. The statement by Kim Kye Gwan on Wednesday came hours after the North abruptly canceled a high-level meeting with South Korea and threatened to do the same with a planned summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump next month.
Kim Kye Gwan criticized recent comments by Mr. Trump’s top security adviser John Bolton and other U.S. officials who have been talking about how the North should follow the “Libyan model” of nuclear disarmament and provide a “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement.”
He also criticized other U.S. comments that the North should completely abandon not only its nukes and missiles but also its biological and chemical weapons.
Kim says: “We will appropriately respond to the Trump administration if it approaches the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting with a truthful intent to improve relations.”
He adds: “But we are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes and this would force us to reconsider whether we would accept the North Korea-U.S. summit meeting.”
Some analysts say bringing up Libya, which dismantled its rudimentary nuclear program in the 2000s in exchange for sanctions relief, would risk derailing any progress in negotiations with the North
Kim Jong Un took power weeks after former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s gruesome death at the hands of rebel forces amid a popular uprising in October 2011. The North has frequently used Gadhafi’s death to justify its own nuclear development in the face of perceived U.S. threats.
The country earlier cancellation of the high-level meeting, which came in a pre-dawn dispatch in North Korea’s state media, appears to cool what had been an unusual flurry of outreach from a country that last year conducted a provocative series of weapons tests that had many fearing the region was on the edge of war. It’s still unclear, however, whether the North intends to scuttle all diplomacy or merely wants to gain leverage ahead of the planned June 12 talks between Kim and Trump.
The statement was released hours before the two Koreas were to meet at a border village to discuss setting up talks aimed at reducing military tension along the world’s most heavily armed border and restarting reunions between families separated by the Korean War.
South Korea says North Korea’s move to cancel the meeting at the last-minute over regular allied military drills was “regrettable” and demanded the North’s quick return to talks. Seoul’s Unification Ministry spokesman Baek Tae-hyun said Wednesday that the North’s decision goes against the spirit of last month’s inter-Korean summit, where the Koreas’ leaders issued a vague vow on the “complete denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula and pledged permanent peace between the rivals.
Baek didn’t provide a straightforward answer when asked whether Seoul sees the North’s move as potentially affecting the planned summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr. Trump over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Yonhap says North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Wednesday’s meeting was canceled and that Pyongyang was questioning whether next month’s summit between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Mr. Trump can also take place as planned.
“We are aware of the South Korean media report,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in response not long after the news broke. “The United States will look at what North Korea has said independently, and continue to coordinate closely with our allies.”
Also Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the U.S. “will continue to plan the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.”
“The United States must carefully contemplate the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit amid the provocative military ruckus that it’s causing with South Korean authorities,” KCNA reported.
The Pentagon says the military exercise is a routine, annual event that is purely defensive in nature. Army Col. Rob Manning says Exercise Max Thunder 2018 is designed to improve the abilities of the U.S. and South Korea to operate together. It began Monday and is slated to run through May 25, and is expected to include aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps, as it has in the past.
“The defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed,” said Manning.
Last year it included as many as 1,200 U.S. personnel and about 640 South Koreans as well as various aircraft including F-16 fighter jets, F-18 Hornets and EA-18G Growlers from the Navy’s electronic attack squadron. Manning says the defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed.
Annual military drills between Washington and Seoul have long been a major source of contention between the Koreas, and analysts have wondered whether their continuation would hurt the detente that, since an outreach by Kim in January, has replaced the insults and threats of war. Earlier — and much larger — springtime drills, which Washington and Seoul toned down, went off without the North’s typically fiery condemnation or accompanying weapons tests.
In March, then-CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told “Face the Nation” that Kim has allowed the U.S. to “continue our exercises on the peninsula something that’s been fought over for decades.” He also made similar remarks the same day on Fox News, saying Kim has “got to continue to allow us to perform our militarily necessary exercises on the peninsula and then he’s got to make sure that he leaves on the table that discussion for denuclearization.”
In March, South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-Yong said Kim “understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue” after meeting with Mr. Trump at the White House.
Washington and Seoul delayed an earlier round of drills in the spring because of the North-South diplomacy surrounding February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the South, which saw Kim send his sister to the opening ceremonies.
South Korea didn’t immediately make any official response to the North’s announcement.
The North’s statement Wednesday comes amid a flurry surprising moves from the North in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s military said North Korea was moving ahead with plans to close its nuclear test site next week, an assessment backed by U.S. researchers who say satellite images show the North has begun dismantling facilities at the site.
The site’s closure was set to come before the Kim-Trump summit, which had been shaping up as a crucial moment in the decades-long push to resolve the nuclear standoff with the North, which is closing in on the ability to viably target the mainland United States with its long-range nuclear-armed missiles.
Despite the North’s moves, some experts were skeptical about whether Kim would completely give up a nuclear program that he had pushed so hard to build. Kim has expressed his intention to negotiate over his weapons, but he still uses a long-contentious term, “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The North previously has used this phrase when demanding that the United States pull its 28,500 troops out of South Korea and withdraw its so-called “nuclear umbrella” security guarantee to South Korea and Japan as a condition for its nuclear disarmament.
Wednesday’s threat could also be targeted at showing a domestic audience that Kim is willing to stand up to Washington. Kim has repeatedly told his people that his nukes are a “powerful treasured sword” that can smash U.S. hostility.
North Korea also has a long history of launching provocations or scrapping deals with Seoul and Washington at the last minute.
In 2013, North Korea abruptly cancelled reunions for families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War just days before they were held to protest what it called rising animosities ahead of joint drills between Seoul and Washington. A year earlier in 2012, the North conducted a prohibited long-range rocket launch weeks after it agreed to suspend weapons tests in return for food assistances.
CBS News’ Kylie Atwood and Steven Portnoy contributed to this report.