North Korea grabs the narrative for the first time, but it has always had the cards

Watching Twitter on Tuesday afternoon and evening U.S. time was definitely the most fun since the Korea Shock on March 8. For the first time since then, North Korea took control of the story. Until now, almost everything we’ve heard about from North Korea has been through the filter of someone else. South Korean officials, most of all, starting with the message they conveyed to President Donald Trump that led him to agree to meet Kim Jong Un. The Chinese, on the occasion of Kim’s two meetings with Xi. And U.S. officials, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has had two meetings with Kim since early April.

All of them kept saying North Korea wanted to denuclearize. None made clear what the term meant in the North’s view. None made any attempt to portray — perhaps because they made no attempt to know — Kim’s long-term intentions. But with two statements on KCNA Wednesday Korea time, Tuesday U.S. time, North Korea finally crystalized what many of the more critical analysts have been saying — that it is not going to bargain away its nuclear weapons. The more important of the two statements, attributed to Kim Kye Gwan, the first vice minister of foreign affairs who has a long history of dealing with the U.S., said Pyongyang is not looking for an “arms for cash” deal, the kind that has been on offer in the past. “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,” Kim said in the statement.

Only the Times’ Choe Sang-hun and Mark Landler caught the import of the statement as the North finally itself clarifying what had been said about it by others — and that was for a late edition story that was subbed out with White House reaction Wednesday morning. Nearly all other coverage led with the idea that the statement represented a negotiating tactic by North Korea, an effort at pressing an argument for advantage ahead of the summit. But if the North won’t take an arms-for-cash deal, what will it take?

The Moon Jae-in administration has repeatedly touted the idea that North Korea was ready to open up economically. One of the second- or third-day stories after the inter-Korean summit was that Moon had given Kim a USB stick with economic investment ideas. Some business people and regional leaders in South Korea have since been portrayed as ready to start shoveling money over the border. Pompeo, after returning with the U.S. prisoners Friday and again on the Sunday talk shows, spoke about the willingness, even eagerness, of the U.S. to lift North Korea’s economy in exchange for its nukes.

The fun, of course, came in watching how Korea watchers digested the news in realtime on Twitter. Because no one really knows what’s going on in Pyongyang or what the motivations or intentions of the Kim regime are, the reaction reveals more about the biases and agendas of the observers and analysts than it does about North Korea.

Some funny ones:

Kim Kye Gwan’s statement sharply criticized John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, and some analysts portrayed it as an attempt by North Korea to drive a wedge between Pompeo and Bolton, forcing Trump to choose between his two new counselors. Bolton has always taken a hard line with North Korea and, a State Department functionary during the George W. Bush administration, created obstacles for the U.S. team in the Six Party talks. Bolton seemed pretty confident Wednesday that he still had Trump’s support. “If they haven’t made a strategic decision that they’re safer without nuclear weapons, that, as President Trump said, it could be a pretty short meeting in Singapore,” Bolton said.

So North Korea wants Bolton out. It is setting down tougher markers for South Korea. It wants Seoul quiet the prominent defector Thae Yong Ho and for it to return 12 women and one man who defected in 2016 who had been working at a North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China. Leftist attorneys sympathetic to the North have already petitioned courts in South Korea to send them back. Now, someone has leaked their identities and a media report in Seoul suggested that they were taken to the South against their will. The defectors don’t want to go back and courts have sided with them. But the Moon government appears on the verge of helping Pyongyang on this. Human rights groups are outraged.

North Korea may have just grabbed the media narrative on Tuesday. But it has always all the cards and, with Moon and perhaps Trump so eager to keep diplomacy on track, all the leverage over them.

 

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