North Korea Threatens To Cancel Kim-Trump Meeting

May 16, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 9:53 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So much buildup to this potential summit between President Trump and North Korea's Leader Kim Jong Un. Hostages were released. Compliments were exchanged, date set, venue chosen. Now it's not clear the thing will even happen. North Korea threatened yesterday to back out, protesting the U.S. desire to end Pyongyang's nuclear program. North Korea has already postponed high-level talks with South Korea that were set for today, in that case, to protest joint military exercises with the United States. Let's get the latest from our correspondent in Seoul, Elise Hu. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: So North Korea state media issues this statement. What do we think? Is the summit off, or, could this be a negotiating ploy?

HU: Yeah. I've been on the phone with a lot of sources here in South Korea today, and the general read is that this is likely a negotiating tactic, that North Korea still wants the summit to happen for many reasons of its own. So what Pyongyang is doing is likely trying to gain an upper hand going into the negotiation while at the same time registering its displeasure with the type of denuclearization favored by the Trump administration's National Security Adviser John Bolton. North Korea's second statement on this topic called Bolton repugnant and objected to how Bolton favors a Libya-style denuclearization.

GREENE: Something that many people have pointed to and said that Libya denuclearizing meant that Gaddafi did not have any way to defend his country when the United States and NATO came in. That's something that, probably, a narrative that North Korea doesn't exactly want.

HU: No, it doesn't.

GREENE: Well, what about these joint military exercises? I mean, North Korea seems upset. They cancel this meeting with South Korea today. But aren't those just an annual event?

HU: Yes. And two different sets of military exercises in the spring are already finished. The one currently going on is an Air Force drill called Max Thunder that started last Friday. This particular Max Thunder exercise is a little larger in scale. It includes bombers from Guam that North Korea gets particularly annoyed by. But we should point out that Pyongyang didn't object to these drills when all the warplanes were showcased in a media day a week before the inter-Korean summit in April. So North Korea is clearly using its objection to exercises strategically. But for the U.S. and South Korea's part, they both say the exercises will continue as planned. They are going on now on the Peninsula.

GREENE: So let's say this is just bluster coming from Pyongyang, them saying you're not going to tell us that we have to denuclearize, we don't like these joint military exercises. What are we hearing from the White House? Is the White House doing anything to reassure North Korea and maybe back away from some of these demands on nuclearization?

HU: The last statement from the White House press secretary was that it is aware of North Korea's statement and was sort of downplaying all of this. South Korea is downplaying any discord, saying that the spirit of their peace agreement with North Korea that was struck last month is going to have different interpretations on specifics, but the spirit of it is the same. So it will remain to be seen how the U.S. and how Washington interprets things as you get the day going out there in the U.S.

GREENE: And I guess it's worth reminding our listeners that North Korea, I mean, has been pushing for and wanting a high-level summit with a sitting U.S. president for decades, right?

HU: Absolutely. That's an important point here. North Korea wants its leader to be seen on equal footing with the American president, who's still considered the leader of the free world. So this is something that North Korea would consider a win. So we should point out that what North Korea is objecting to specifically in its statement is John Bolton's style of a more hardline position on how to give up its nuclear capabilities.

GREENE: Just a reminder - it would be hard for them to just back away that quickly over some negotiations. NPR's Elise Hu reporting for us in Seoul this morning. Elise, thanks.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.