SEOUL - U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be calling North Korea’s bluff on its end-of-year deadline for nuclear negotiations, prompting some analysts to wonder whether the U.S. president should be taking Pyongyang’s threats more seriously.
“Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the U.S. Presidential Election in November,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 9. “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, has tremendous economic potential, but it must denuclearize as promised.”
That same day, a top North Korean official released a threatening statement that addressed the U.S. president directly through the country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
“It seems that Trump is very anxious to know what we are thinking now. And he feels very fretful about what will be done by us,” said Ri Su Yong, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. “The recent words and expressions spouted one after another by Trump sound like a threat to someone at a glance, but they are a corroboration that he feels fear inside.”
“Trump might be in great jitters, but he had better accept the status quo that as he sowed, so he should reap, and think twice if he does not want to see bigger catastrophic consequences,” Ri continued.
In both Seoul and Washington, experts are concerned that Trump’s bluster will only continue to yield mirrored responses from Pyongyang.
“Whether Trump is taking [North Korea’s deadline] seriously is really unclear. But he definitely should be,” Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center and managing editor of North Korea news analysis site 38North.
“It’s one thing to talk about having a great relationship [with North Korea], and it’s another thing to emphasize ‘you need me’ and the sentiment that’s very much along the line of the ‘don’t be a tough guy’ comment to [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan],” Town said. “It’s just not going to play out the way Trump wants it to.”
John Delury, a North Korea analyst and associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, believes North Korea is firm about its end-of-year deadline.
“There’s two parties to the negotiation. If one party says they have a deadline, it’s a deadline,” he said. “I mean, the other party can choose to ignore it, but there are consequences.”
Kim Jong Un first set the deadline during a diplomatic deadlock last April, shortly after talks with Trump broke down at the Hanoi summit in late February.
“North Korea has been so consistent with their messaging about this deadline and they put so much emphasis on this deadline that, you know, I don’t think it’s the right thing to approach it by saying it’s arbitrarily made up,” Delury said.
It’s unclear what the United States would need to do to pass Pyongyang’s deadline, but experts said a proposal with tangible concessions and detailed steps toward denuclearization would be a good start.
“North Korea is looking for a deal to consider,” Town said. “… But it seems pretty clear that Kim Jong Un has already made a decision as to what he thinks is going to happen. Now, he’s basically looking for the U.S. to change his mind.”