In addition to growing concerns that North Korea will pull out of the upcoming nuclear summit with the U.S., prospects for improved inter-Korean relations have also stalled, as Pyongyang demands that U.S.-South Korea joint military drills be scaled back, and a group of defectors be returned.
Just weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared the beginning of a new era of peace during a historic summit held in the demilitarized zone of the inter-Korean border, Pyongyang has put further dialogue and cooperation on hold until its demands are met.
President Moon will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming Trump-Kim summit and the North’s sudden conditions set for continued dialogue and cooperation.
Most of North Korea’s anger last week, expressed in official statements and reports carried by the state news agency KCNA, seemed to be directed at the U.S. It criticized the Max Thunder joint military exercise that is currently underway, and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s demands for the North’s unilateral nuclear disarmament. North Korea in particular objected to Bolton’s insistence that North Korea follow the Libyan model, which involved the rapid and total dismantlement of that country’s nuclear program, but it was also followed by the overthrow of the country’s leader Moammar Gadhafi some years later.
Unless the U.S. eased up on its uncompromising stance, Pyongyang indicated it would pull out of the June 12 meeting in Singapore between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump to negotiate an end the North’s nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and an end to punishing international sanctions.
President Trump later said the Libya model does not apply to North Korea and that Kim Jong Un would remain in power and “be very rich” if he makes a deal to end his country’s nuclear program.
North Korea denounced South Korea, as well, for the joint military drills, calling the Seoul government “ignorant and incompetent,” and suspending working-level bilateral talks last week.
Despite the North’s confrontational stance, U.S. and South Korean officials say preparations for the Trump-Kim summit are still underway, and analysts say that the sudden demands by the North could be attempts to influence the negotiation process.
“I think this is posturing by the North Koreans. I think they are trying to do a little bit of shaking the American side up,” said Dennis Wilder, an assistant professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, while participating in VOA’s Washington Talk program.
On Saturday North Korea demanded the return of 12 female former employees of a state-owned restaurant in China, who fled to South Korea in 2016.
An unnamed spokesman for the North’s Red Cross said the group was misled to defect by restaurant manager Heo Kang-il, who was working for the South’s National Intelligence Service. In an interview last week with South Korean broadcaster JBTC, Heo said he intended to bring along only his wife when he defected, but that the conservative government of President Park Geun-hye pressured him to bring the entire staff, and later publicized the large group of defectors just prior to legislative elections that were held in April of 2016.
“They begged me to help, saying that if I do not come with others, they would report me to the embassy of the North Korean side,” said Heo.
The administration of President Moon last week said it is looking into Heo’s allegations, but insists the restaurant workers who defected to South Korea are there by their own choice.
“We know that the female restaurant workers defected of their own free will. I am saying that this stance is unchanged,” said Baik Tae-hyun, spokesman for the Ministry of Unification.
If the defectors are not returned, North Korea indicated it might renege on a recent agreement made at the inter-Korean summit to hold in August a reunion for families that have been separated since the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II.
The leadership in Pyongyang has also not accepted, so far, the proposed list of eight South Korean journalists selected to witness the destruction of the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
North Korea recently announced it would shut down the nuclear site this week, and would allow selected journalists from South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia, and Britain to cover the event.
The South’s Unification Ministry said on Monday that the North has not responded to attempts to contact the government in Pyongyang using a communication channel that was re-established following the inter-Korean summit.
However the designated South Korean journalists will travel on Monday to Beijing in hopes that North Korea will allow them to join the other invited international media to observe the shutting down of the site, which has been used for each of North Korea's six underground nuclear test explosions.
The invited journalists are to take a chartered flight from Beijing to the North Korean coastal town of Wonsan on Tuesday. 38 North, a North Korea-focused U.S. website, said recent satellite imagery shows construction in the area of what could be a safe reviewing stand for visitors to observe the explosive closure of all three Punggye-ri “portal areas.”
Lee Yoon-jee in Seoul contributed to this report.