- - Sunday, December 8, 2019

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is getting bad advice from his senior advisers. Rather than pursuing closer relations with the United States, North Korea is in the process of unraveling a close personal relationship Mr. Kim has with President Donald Trump while, also, undermining 18 months of delicate negotiations.

The spate of recent threats and insults from North Korea is not unfamiliar to some of us who have negotiated with North Korea. In fact, it’s part of their playbook. When they’re not happy, they criticize and threaten to escalate, hoping we cave and accommodate their demands. We’ve seen this for the past 25 years.  But it’s different now and Kim Jong-un should understand and appreciate this.  He personally has been meeting with the president of the United States, something previously unimaginable. Two leadership summits and a DMZ meeting, with routine correspondence between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, has given Mr. Kim significant international exposure and credibility.

Moreover, the June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit Joint Statement is viewed by many as a defining commitment by North Korea and the United States to: establish a new bilateral relationship, build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea committing to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and both countries committed to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified. Also during this historic meeting of a siting U.S. president with a leader from North Korea, Mr. Trump committed to provide North Korea with security guarantees, a core demand from the North.

The second summit in Hanoi unfortunately was not successful, with both sides making unacceptable proposals. The DMZ meeting that followed in June 2019 was positive, with a commitment to have positive (working level) meetings going forward. The first and last senior working level meeting was in Stockholm in October 2019.  That one-day meeting, between Special Representative Steve Biegen and chief nuclear negotiator Kim Myong Gil, went for more than eight hours, with positive comments from Mr. Biegen and criticism from Mr. Kim. Efforts to have a second working level meeting have been unsuccessful.

Over the last few months, North Korea has publicly issued a series of ultimatums to the United States to change its calculus by December of this year for dealing with the North. Recent media commentaries from Gen. Kim Yong-chol, the former lead negotiator for North Korea and head of the United Front Department and Kim Kye-gwan, the former First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and lead negotiator for the Six Party Talks, have been very critical of the United States, parroting this ultimatum.



The recent public comments from the new First Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae-Song have been, even by the North’s standards, critical and offensive.  To threaten the United States with an “unwelcomed Christmas gift” if we don’t change our approach and discard our so-called hostile policy toward the North is unsettling and unfortunate. For North Korea to allude to a return to 2017, with nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, is reckless and provocative. Certainly, Mr. Kim must know that President Trump will respond forcefully to this type of escalation. Indeed, even the threat from the North of this escalation will generate a momentum in the United States to revert back to a policy of “maximum pressure” and “fire and fury.”

Pyongyang just announced that a Plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party will meet later in December, before Mr. Kim’s 2020 New Year’s address. Convening the Central Committee at this late date, and publicizing it, is unusual. It’s fair to assume Mr. Kim will have a major pronouncement at this meeting, with expected unanimous support.  It would be unfortunate, however, if Mr. Kim uses this meeting and his New Year’s address to claim that North Korea is the victim and the United States is the perpetrator, thus necessitating that the North work harder to build its so-called nuclear deterrent.

Given how far North Korea has come working with Mr. Trump, to revert to such a hostile and provocative stance will, no doubt, destroy any remaining good will and force the United States and its allies to revert to a policy of maximum pressure and fire and fury.

Movement in this direction will be extremely dangerous for the Korean Peninsula, the region and the world. This is a time that China, an ally of the North, has to use its significant influence on the North to convince Mr, Kim that movement in this direction would be a tragic mistake.  President Xi Jinping now has a personal relationship with Mr. Kim and hopefully can convince Mr. Kim to refrain from this type of escalation and encourage him to pursue the commitments that were made at the June 2018 Singapore Summit, in addition to reminding Mr. Kim that the United States will provide the security assurances and economic development assistance North Korea needs and expects, in return for complete and verifiable denuclearization.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government department or agency.

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