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The dizzying pace of North Korean-U.S. diplomacy this year had President Donald Trump fielding questions about whether he might win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, North Korea has threatened to scrap Trump’s June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, bringing lofty expectations about what may be achieved at the summit down to Earth. Like Trump’s predecessors, this White House is getting a reality check on the pitfalls of negotiating with the isolated and mercurial regime in Pyongyang.
Ahead of next month’s summit in Singapore, which the White House insists is going forward, skepticism has replaced the confidence that North Korea is ready to reverse decades of intransigence and give up its nuclear weapons for good.
“That rosy outcome was very unlikely to come to fruition,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. “I never put in a lot of stock in the U.S.-North Korea summit because the U.S. and North Korea have never had a successful negotiation that ended up in preventing nuclear weapons.”
Up until this week, some administration officials were all but declaring success in their bid to use heightened United Nations sanctions and diplomatic isolation to get North Korea to commit to “complete denuclearization,” without acknowledging that Pyongyang’s definition of the term might be different than Washington’s.
To bolster their optimism, the American officials cited moves North Korea made without much prompting: a promise to freeze nuclear and missile tests, the announcement of plans to destroy a nuclear test site and the decision to release three American prisoners when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited.
With the momentum appearing to build, Pompeo extolled the possible economic benefits North Korea might receive from the U.S. once it gave up its weapons.
“I think he appreciates the fact that this is going to have to be different and big and special, and something that has never been undertaken before,” Pompeo said of Kim when he spoke to Fox New Sunday. “Our eyes are wide open with respect to the risks. But it is our fervent hope that Chairman Kim wants to make a strategic change.”
But U.S. hopes began to darken after North Korea issued statements this week withdrawing from a planned meeting with South Korean leaders and threatening to scrap the summit with Trump. North Korean officials also lambasted National Security Adviser John Bolton, who had gone on television Sunday to praise the “Libya model” of arms control, under which the late dictator Moammar Qaddafi surrendered his nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.
Two years later, Qaddafi was overthrown by rebels who hunted down and killed him in the streets, providing an alternative definition of the “Libya model” that Kim would rather not be associated with.
In a bid to keep plans for the summit on track, Trump on Thursday contradicted Bolton, saying his administration isn’t using Libya as a example for North Korea “at all” and that the U.S. would probably need to provide assurances to the regime to get a grand bargain.
Under such an accord, Trump said of Kim, “He’d be there, be in his country, he’d be running his country. His country would be very rich.”
North Korea also reacted vehemently against Pompeo’s suggestion that North Korea would be eager for U.S. trade and infrastructure investment that would flow if North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons. What the regime probably wants, analysts say, is just an easing of UN sanctions so that it can conduct whatever business it wants.
“The U.S. is trumpeting as if it would offer economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nukes,” North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, said. “But we have never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in future, either.”
The back-and-forth on the U.S. messaging underscored new skepticism and confusion about the administration’s strategy, and what exactly it wants out of the meeting.
“It’s not clear, what is the purpose of the summit, I’m really wondering,” said Srinivasan Sitaraman, a professor of political science at Clark University. “What are the North Koreans willing to give up, what are the compromises the U.S. is willing to make? They are at opposite extremes. I really don’t see where they can come to an agreement.”
U.S. officials say their goal remains clear, using an acronym that has quickly entered the Washington lexicon: CVID, or “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, spelled out that approach to Kim during a Wall Street Journal event in Tokyo on May 15.
“There’s an expectation as he’s already committed to complete denuclearization and in his conversations with the South Koreans that there will be a big down payment, a big upfront demonstration of his intention, to do that,” Thornton said. “Not just words and statements but also actions.”
Whether North Korea is willing to go that far remains an open question — but many observers think not, and there lies the danger for Trump. He needs to be able to show something concrete from the summit, while for Kim, just having the meeting will be a victory, according to said Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, who’s now vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
North Korean leaders have for years sought a meeting with a U.S. president for the legitimacy it would confer on a regime that has been isolated and scorned by the international community. Kim is on the cusp of making that a reality.
Trump was warned of the dichotomy in U.S. and North Korean interests by some of his top advisers in the past, who had cautioned the president against meeting Kim without a concrete set of objectives in hand. Several of those advisers, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were later dismissed.
“One of the two leaders is going into this meeting with a very well developed plan, is bringing a sophisticated understanding of the issues, the background, the history and the baggage,” said Russel, the former State Department official. “Unfortunately that isn’t the president of the United States. It’s Kim Jong Un.’
If diplomacy with North Korea fails at the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the regime already has a system in place to navigate international pressure, the Wall Street Journal reports.
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.”
Researchers said a team of hackers tied to North Korea recently managed to get the Google Play market to host at least three Android apps designed to surreptitiously steal personal information from defectors of the isolated nation.
The three apps first appeared in the official Android marketplace in January and weren’t removed until March when Google was privately notified. That’s according to a blog post published Thursday by researchers from security company McAfee. Two apps masqueraded as security apps, and a third purported to provide information about food ingredients. Hidden functions caused them to steal device information and allow them to receive additional executable code that stole personal photos, contact lists, and text messages.
The apps were spread to selected individuals, in many cases by contacting them over Facebook. The apps had about 100 downloads when Google removed them. Nation-operated espionage campaigns frequently infect a small number of carefully selected targets in an attempt to remain undetected. Thursday’s report is the latest to document malicious apps that bypassed Google filters designed to keep bad wares out of the Play market.
McAfee reported last November that it found malicious Android files that contained backdoors that were very similar to those used by a North Koren hacking group known as Lazarus. A so-called “advanced persistent threat group” that multiple researchers have tracked for years, Lazarus is credited with the 2014 breach of Sony Pictures that wiped almost a terabyte’s worth of data, a string of attacks on financial institutions (including an $81 million heist of a Bangladeshi bank in 2016), and the unleashing of the Wannacry worm (second attribution here), which shut down hospitals, train stations, and businesses worldwide.
Common traits between Lazarus and the Android malware McAfee reported in November included backdoor files that used the same seed to generate encryption keys and a similar way to communicate with control servers.
In January, McAfee reported finding malicious apps targeting North Korean journalists and defectors. Some of the Korean words found in the control servers weren’t used in South Korea but were used in North Korea. The researchers also found a North Korean IP address in a test log file of some Android devices that connected to accounts used to spread the malware. McAfee said the developers didn’t appear to be connected to any previously known hacking groups. The researchers named the group Sun Team after finding a deleted folder called “sun Team Folder.”
The three apps McAfee reported Thursday contained the same developer email address used for the apps reported in January, a finding that established the same developers were responsible for all of them. Logs for the newer apps also used similar formats and the same abbreviations for various fields as those found in the apps reported in January. The three apps’ descriptions also contained Korean writing that appeared similarly awkward, and a Dropbox account that received pilfered data contained references to Jack Black and other celebrities who appeared on Korean TV.
In an email, McAfee Chief Scientist Raj Samani said company researchers right now believe the Sun Team is probably a separate group than Lazarus. The researchers base that assessment on different methods used in their campaigns. Samani said it’s possible Lazarus and the Sun Team may ultimately prove to be more connected than current evidence establishes. But McAfee researchers said, based on the language found in the Android apps and the cultural references, they strongly suspect that the Sun Team is based in North Korea.
“These features are strong evidence that the actors behind these campaigns are not native South Koreans but are familiar with the culture and language,” McAfee researchers wrote. “These elements are suggestive, though not a confirmation, of the nationality of the actors behind these malware campaigns.”
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 Ilbo reported 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 Times proposed 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.