North Korea’s goal remains unchanged: It will not bargain away its nuclear weapons unless Washington removes military threats.
SEOUL, South Korea — For months, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has been unexpectedly conciliatory toward South Korea and the United States, announcing a halt to nuclear and missile tests even as the two countries staged military exercises that the North sees as a rehearsal for invasion.
Then on Wednesday, North Korea said Mr. Kim’s government would not give up its nuclear weapons unless Washington removed military threats against his isolated country. Without such assurances, it said Mr. Kim could withdraw from a planned June 12 summit meeting with President Trump in Singapore.
“North Korea wanted to show that threatening to walk away from a meeting is a negotiating tactic it has mastered long before President Trump did,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.
If North Korea’s tough statements on Wednesday caught officials in Seoul and Washington off guard, they also reflected a well-established North Korean stance.
Even as he has recently reached out to Washington and Seoul for dialogue, Mr. Kim has repeatedly said he would denuclearize his country only if it no longer felt “threatened militarily” by such exercises as the “Max Thunder” Air Force drills underway now between the United States and South Korea. He has also demanded “security guarantees” from the United States, and said his country wants to enter talks with Washington as an equal nuclear power.
”The last thing Kim Jong-un can afford is to look like he is surrendering his nuclear weapons,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Countries need to help North Korea find a way to disarm itself in a face-saving way.”
North Korea grew nervous that it might look weak by making unilateral concessions, like the missile-test moratorium and its decision to shut down its nuclear test site, while the United States has not matched them with its own concessions and only vowed to keep up its maximum pressure, Mr. Koh said.
Few analysts said the North would ultimately go so far as to cancel the Singapore meeting. Rather, the threat to withdraw was an attempt to raise the price that Washington would have to pay to get any significant concessions on the North’s nuclear program, analysts said.
“The goal is to change the subject from what the U. S. wants to talk about — denuclearization — to Pyongyang’s preferred focus: U. S. military exercises, the U. S. ‘threat’ and by extension the U. S.-South Korea alliance,” said Evans J. R. Revere, who directed Korean policy at the State Department during the administration of President George W. Bush.
North Korea’s abrupt change in tone began Wednesday when it indefinitely postponed high-level talks with South Korea, blaming the joint military drills with the United States that began last week.

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