North Korea’s abrupt threat this week to pull out of the upcoming summit with President Trump was highly calculated, according to intelligence officials who say Pyongyang wanted to harden its negotiating position against a quick “Libya-style” surrender of its nuclear programs sought by the Trump White House and buy time to hide its nuclear weapons. While U.S. officials say they believe Pyongyang’s threat — conveyed so far only via state-controlled media — was also driven by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s need to show his domestic audience he won’t “roll over” to Mr. Trump, the development raised fresh questions about the scope of Pyongyang’s nuclear operations and Mr. Kim’s willingness to abandon them. While great uncertainty swirls around the extent of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, U.S. officials and private analysts say Pyongyang’s history of dragging out talks and inking agreements they have no intention of implementing is well known. “The North Koreans have this belief they can somehow outsmart the U.S.,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who is close with the Trump administration and has past experience negotiating with Pyongyang.
“They may be attempting to sanitize their facilities right now while also trying to buy more time for that,” he said.
In a move that took both Washington and Seoul by surprise, Pyongyang has seized on joint U.S.-South Korean military now underway as the justification to cancel a planned meeting of North and South Korean officials, raise questions about the proposed June 12 Kim-Trump summit in Singapore, and to hurl invective at the U.S. government — and new National Security Adviser John Bolton by name — for suggesting the North’s complete denuclearization must happen quickly. The problem, from North Korea’s perspective: Gadhafi’s nuclear weapons-less regime was toppled in a NATO-backed revolt ignited by the 2011 Arab Spring, and the dictator himself was hunted down and shot by rebel forces. Following a series of tests that sent U.S.-North Korean tensions soaring in Mr. Trump’s first year in office, U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that Pyongyang has succeeded in developing a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile, and possibly is close to having a nuclear-tipped ICBM that could reach the U.S. homeland. North Korea in recent public statements has talked about “progressive and synchronous” steps with the U.S. on a path to full denuclearization, raising the prospect of a lengthy prospect and one in which U.S. concessions — including reducing the U.S. troop presence in South Korea and security guarantees for the North — would be required to keep the peace process going.