Trump and Kim meet in Hanoi in February.

Trump and Kim meet in Hanoi in February. Shealah Craighead/White House

The U.S. and North Korea Are Back to Talking Tough

Pyongyang’s latest threats don’t necessarily mean diplomacy is dead. But they are a sign of just how deadlocked nuclear talks have become.

The attack dogs have been let loose.

That much was clear from the brink of war early on in the Trump administration.

Just as important as the message was the messenger. North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, delivered the warning during a briefing in Pyongyang on Friday with foreign diplomats and journalists. Choe is an denouncing U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy” and threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” with the United States.

Choe’s principal foil in the Trump administration is National Security Adviser John Bolton, who prompted her outburst against Pence in the first place by has been arguing since he served in the George W. Bush administration that North Korea’s leaders have no intention of negotiating away their nuclear weapons and that the only way to remove the grave threat their arsenal poses to the United States is through regime change brought about by economic pressure or a preventive war. (He’s mostly refrained from expressing these views since joining the Trump administration last April.)

And Bolton, whom Choe blamed on Friday for poisoning the Vietnam summit with “gangster-like” demands for North Korea to commit to full denuclearization before receiving sanctions relief, has been sicced on the North Koreans as well since the showdown in Vietnam. The national security adviser, who largely deferred (at least publically) to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on diplomacy with North Korea, has emerged in recent weeks as the administration’s most prominent spokesperson on the nuclear talks.

Zipping around the Sunday shows, he’s urged North Korea to relinquish all its weapons of mass destruction as part of a “big deal” and pledged to maintain and perhaps escalate economic sanctions against Pyongyang if Kim doesn’t. He’s done all this with relish. “The North Koreans were very disappointed we didn't buy their bad deal,” he said of Kim’s offer in Vietnam to dismantle his main nuclear complex in exchange for relief from most sanctions. “That's life in the big city.”

It’s the kind of barbed rhetoric that Bolton and Choe avoided when their bosses were championing the results of their first summit in Singapore last year and promising to deliver a breakthrough when they met again.

The unmuzzling of the attack dogs on each side is a reminder that Trump and Kim are each contending with a hardline faction at home that views the diplomacy they’re engaged in as a hopeless and dangerous endeavor. As Choe noted this week, Kim decided to press ahead with diplomacy in Vietnam despite the fact that military leaders are petitioning him to not give up his nuclear program.

But it’s also a sign of the paradoxical outcome of a summit that was intended to dramatically defuse tensions between North Korea and the United States: Each side has come away with the recognition that despite all the pageantry there’s a huge gulf between their positions, and with the conviction that exerting pressure is the key to getting the other side to come around to their preferred approach. The Americans think sanctions will force the North Koreans to  fully renounce their nuclear program. The North Koreans think the further development of their nuclear arsenal—through ongoing production of nuclear material, recent reversals of moves to dismantle a rocket site, and now the specter of more tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons—will compel the Americans to settle, for the time being at least, for something far short of full denuclearization. Tough talk from Bolton and Choe is a form of pressure.

There is a very fine line, however, between applying pressure and shattering a delicate and deteriorating diplomatic process. As Moon Chung In, a foreign-policy adviser to South Korea’s president, wrote this week, citing the way in which the spat between Choe and Pence nearly sabotaged the first Trump-Kim summit, “Mutual restraint in word and deed is essential for the resuscitation of negotiation. The surest way to derail the negotiations and precipitate a potential catastrophe would be for North Korea to engage in any nuclear or missile tests.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.