It’s been one of the more memorable 24-hour periods in recent history, and the fun shows no sign of stopping. I almost hesitate to write this, as events unfold so quickly that they’ll certainly be overcome by newer events by the time I’m finished writing, let alone by the time you read it. But despite his critics’ best attempts to spin the day as a bad one for President Donald Trump, it wasn’t.
We woke up Thursday morning to news that North Korea had destroyed its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in front of a collection of handpicked Western journalists, but soon after learned that Choe Son-hui, a North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs, had gone on a rant about Vice President Mike Pence’s reference to the “Libyan Model,” threatening not only to withdraw from the planned June 12 Singapore Summit, but that the Democratic People’s Republic could “make the US taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now.”
A few hours later, Trump informed North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un that he was cancelling the summit, saying that the “tremendous anger and open hostility” of Choe’s statement had ruined the chance to meet on the planned date.
As frustrating as all this is, it totally took the spotlight away from where it should have been: the Medal of Honor ceremony for Master Chief Perry Officer Brett Slabinski, a Navy SEAL. Trump presented Slabinski with “The Medal” for actions at what is sometimes called the Battle of Robert’s Ridge, a March 2002 action during “Operation Anaconda,” near Takur Gahr, Afghanistan. I’ll write about him soon.
Destroyed, or maybe not
Let’s clear one thing up right away: the entire Punggye-ri test site did not collapse after the last DPRK nuclear test. Part of it most likely collapsed, but the site consisted of four tunnels. The East Portal was used only for the first nuclear test in 2006 and was apparently abandoned shortly thereafter.
The next five tests took place inside tunnels branching off the North Portal. It was here where collapsing took place. But the Koreans had dug two additional tunnels into the mountainsides, called the West and South Portals, which had yet to be used for any tests. These two tunnels remained very useable and were likely ready to be used for future tests.
An image from the site shown on CNN featured a North Korean military officer explaining the site’s layout, which validated the analysis of the researchers at 38North.org, regarding where they thought the tests were located inside the mountain.
The Koreans then set off several explosive charges in the mouths of the North, West, and South Portals, which made a great show for the cameras. But while the journalists serve as witnesses to the event, they cannot, in any real sense, verify what the Koreans say took place. The absence of any real outside experts means that the explosions may only have caused relatively superficial damage, leaving the tunnels themselves largely intact. There’s simply no easy way to know.
Pence is “politically stupid”
Numerous U.S. officials have referenced Libya as the model for denuclearization. Confronted by the realization that President George W. Bush hadn’t been bluffing with Saddam Hussein, Libyan strongman Muammar Khaddafi voluntarily gave up his nascent nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. In the eyes of the U.S., it serves as the example of how to dismantle a country’s rogue nuclear program.
But when you mention Libya, the Koreans hear only two things: that the Libyans had not actually built a functioning nuclear weapon, and that President Barack Obama, apparently swept-up in the excitement and optimism of the 2011 “Arab Spring,” committed U.S. airpower to the defeat of Khaddafi, despite Bush’s commitment not to support Libyan regime change.
To the Koreans, “Libya Model” means “you give up your nukes and we overthrow you anyway.”
But lashing out at Pence for invoking the model was itself one of three things: a deliberate attempt on Kim’s part to derail the talks, a deliberate attempt on the part of actors within the DPRK government to derail the talks despite Kim’s intentions to proceed, or, frankly, politically stupid. My money is on the second option.
I long ago came to the conclusion that Kim’s main objective is to stay in power on his side of a permanently divided Korea. His nuclear weapons will ensure that outcome, either as a deterrent, or a bargaining chip. I remain convinced that there are those around him who oppose his attempts to finalize peace with the South.
Choe is described as being close to Kim. But despite her position as the lead negotiator for the DPRK, she may well be closer to others within the government who want the negotiations to fail. Pay attention to how often, if at all, Choe is seen in public in the next few weeks.
The decision to cancel talks
Depending on who you listen to, Trump’s decision to call off the June 12 meeting was either the right move, or the final step towards World War III. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said that Kim “played” himself, calling Trump’s reaction “100% the right decision.” Others less inclined to give the president any benefit of the doubt thought it was he, not Kim, who was throwing the tantrum.
I and many other s have long said that agreeing to meet with Kim carried little risk, provided Team Trump knew exactly when and under what conditions it would walk away. Calling the vice president politically stupid, and threatening a nuclear strike on the U.S. was one such trigger. Given the stakes, Trump was absolutely correct to walk away.
This isn’t to say that the summit cannot be rescheduled. In fact, by early evening in Washington, the DPRK was already signaling it was still willing to meet despite the day’s setbacks. Kim Kye-gwan, the first vice minister of foreign affairs who loudly criticized the U.S. last week over invoking the Libya Model, told reporters “We reiterate to the U.S. that we are willing to sit face to face at any time and in any way.”
Deep, cleansing breaths, everybody. The U.S. and DPRK are no closer to war tonight than they were 48 hours ago.