Last Tuesday, North Korea canceled a high-level diplomatic meeting with South Korea and threatened to call off next month’s summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s statements came just one week after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from Pyongyang with three American citizens held prisoner by the Kim regime and the date for the Trump-Kim summit in hand.
The current episode of tension reflects a wide and dangerous expectation gap between the United States and North Korea, but it should not dissuade the Trump administration from going through with the summit.
If the Trump administration wants to take away the right lessons from North Korea’s display of anger it needs to first understand the root cause of North Korea’s ire. When Pyongyang announced that it was calling off a high-level diplomatic meeting with South Korea it cited the U.S.-South Korea military exercise known as “Max Thunder,” a large-scale air force exercise that has occurred every year since 2009, as the culprit. A statement released by state broadcaster KCNA said, “The maneuver [Max Thunder] is the largest-ever and a reflection of the invariable stand of the U.S. and south (sic) Korea to persist in the ‘maximum pressure and sanctions’ against the DPRK.” In particular, North Korea objected to U.S. F-22 fighters and B-52 bombers participating in the exercise, as the former can easily penetrate North Korean airspace with little chance of detection and the latter is nuclear-capable. After the KCNA denunciation of Max Thunder, the Pentagon released a statement clarifying that B-52s were not slated to participate but North Korea did not drop its opposition to the exercise.
Max Thunder itself is probably not the real reason why North Korea is threatening to call off the Trump-Kim summit. If Kim viewed the exercise as unacceptable he had ample opportunity to raise the issue with the United States and South Korea. The exercise began on May 11 and there was no indication given before or during the exercise that North Korea viewed it as a potential deal breaker. Moreover, if Kim had voiced concerns Washington and Seoul probably would have adjusted some elements of Max Thunder to preserve diplomacy considering they agreed to postpone the annual Foal Eagle exercise so it would take place after the Winter Olympics and adjusted the length of and forces that participated in Foal Eagle to ensure a smooth inter-Korean summit.
Rather than military exercises, North Korean anger stems from two issues. First, Pyongyang seems frustrated about the relative lack of concessions made by the United States in the lead-up to the Trump-Kim summit. In the past month, North Korea freed American detainees and began dismantling its nuclear testing site, but from the North’s perspective, the United States has not taken many similar steps in return.
Second, Kim and his regime are listening to what U.S. officials have said about the upcoming summit and they don’t like what they are hearing, especially from National Security Advisor John Bolton. Indeed, Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, called out Bolton by name, saying, “We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him.”
Beyond the personal insults, the North Koreans criticize Bolton for promoting a “Libya model” for North Korean denuclearization. Based on recent statements, Bolton’s use of the term likely refers to an invasive inspections regime. In a recent interview with CBS, Bolton said, “One thing that Libya did that led us to overcome our skepticism was that they allowed American and British observers into all their nuclear related sites. So it wasn’t a question of relying on international mechanisms. We saw them in ways we had never seen before.” However, to the North Koreans, Libya is a cautionary tale because less than ten years after Moammar Gaddafi surrendered his nuclear weapons program he was deposed and brutally killed with the help of American air power.
North Korea’s recent behavior is a sobering reminder about the danger of mismatched expectations. On the one hand, Kim Kye Gwan’s statement indicates that North Korea is approaching the Trump-Kim summit with the expectation that the goal of the summit is to improve the relationship with the United States. Denuclearization is not off the table for the North, but it expects the United States to end the so-called “hostile policy” as a precondition for denuclearization. On the other hand, the Trump administration seems to think that its maximum pressure campaign is an unmitigated success and all-but-predicting that the summit will produce significant progress on denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief. Critics rightly point out that such claims are premature, at best.
North Korea is likely using the Max Thunder exercise as a tool for reaffirming its expectations in advance of the Trump-Kim summit. The summit is not in mortal danger right now as both Kim and Trump have invested political capital in making the meeting happen and some in the Trump administration has started distancing itself from Bolton’s comments about the “Libya model.” However, both sides need to narrow the current gulf in expectations. If current irreconcilable differences persist, there is a good chance that the summit will end in a dismal failure.