SEOUL - North Korea has directed a wave of criticism at top White House officials, as talks with the United States have stalled. But one person Pyongyang hasn’t criticized: Donald Trump.
The pattern reflects North Korea’s apparent preference to continue negotiating directly with Trump, who has taken a more conciliatory approach to the nuclear talks than many of his deputies.
It also appears to be a carefully calibrated effort by North Korea to increase negotiating pressure on the U.S. without completely derailing the talks.
“They’re good at drawing the line,” says David Kim, who specializes in East Asia security policy at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “As long as they don’t bash Trump, we’ll be OK.”
North Korea has bashed plenty of other U.S. officials in recent weeks.
Pompeo ‘talking nonsense,’ North says
Last week, after announcing the test of a “tactical guided weapon,” North Korean state media took aim at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo is “talking nonsense” and “fabricating stories like a fiction writer,” said the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), quoting a foreign ministry official.
“Whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in, the talks go wrong,” said the official, who called for Pompeo to be removed from the negotiating team.
North Korea was apparently unhappy with a recent Senate hearing during which Pompeo agreed with the characterization of Kim Jong Un as a “tyrant.”
Pyongyang has also accused Pompeo of making unreasonable denuclearization demands during meetings with his North Korean counterparts.
Pompeo downplayed the comments, insisting last week he’s “still in charge” of the team negotiating with North Korea.
North Korea: Bolton ‘dim-sighted’
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, who North Korea once referred to as “human scum” and a “bloodsucker,” also received the KCNA treatment last week.
“He looks dim-sighted to me,” a North Korean foreign ministry official said of the glasses-wearing Bolton. “We have never expected that adviser Bolton would ever make a reasonable remark.”
Bolton, who also dealt with North Korea during the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, is one of Washington’s most hawkish officials on North Korea issues.
Just a month before joining the Trump administration last year, Bolton wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal titled: “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
Bolton has also angered North Korea by proposing it follow Libya’s model of unilaterally handing over its entire nuclear program.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program in the early 2000s; he was killed by protesters during a NATO-backed uprising against his rule in 2011.
Trump-Kim ties ‘excellent’
In contrast to its treatment of Pompeo and Bolton, North Korea has gone out of its way to praise the friendly relations between Trump and Kim.
The personal chemistry between Trump and Kim is still “mysteriously wonderful,” senior North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui said in March.
Trump and Kim weren’t always friendly. In 2017, Trump dubbed Kim “Little Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” amid North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests. Kim returned the threats of nuclear war and referred to Trump as a “dotard.”
Trump now insists his friendship with Kim could be key to convincing the young North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons.
“We fell in love,” Trump said last year, touting the “beautiful letters” he has exchanged with Kim.
Given Trump’s softer approach, North Korea likely believes it can get a better deal if it negotiates directly with Trump, analysts say.
“They still have trust in President Trump,” says Kim Joon-hyung, a professor at South Korea’s Handong Global University. “So they are trying to separate him from his staff.”
Trump overrules the hawks
Trump has repeatedly disagreed with and sometimes overruled the North Korea policies of his more hawkish deputies.
For example, although Bolton and some senior State Department officials have spoken about timelines for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, Trump regularly insists he is in “no hurry.”
Trump has overruled some of his top advisors, including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with his decision to suspend large-scale military exercises with South Korea.
Last month, after the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against two Chinese shipping companies because of deliveries to North Korea, Trump abruptly reversed the move. A day earlier, Bolton had publicly praised the sanctions on Twitter.
In explaining the sanctions reversal, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said “President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
So what’s next?
Even though Trump and Kim have stopped insulting each other for now, the talks remain stalled.
Despite two summits between Trump and Kim, U.S. officials now acknowledge they have not even reached an agreement on what the idea of denuclearization means.
With such fundamental disagreements, it’s not clear that personal diplomacy alone can rescue the talks. And both sides appear to be hardening their stances.
Trump says he is not willing to relax sanctions unless North Korea agrees to completely dismantle its nuclear program. Pyongyang has offered only partial dismantlement in exchange for lifting most U.N. sanctions.
In a speech earlier this month, Kim said he was open to a third summit with Trump. But he gave the U.S. until the end of the year to change its approach.