White House Brushes Aside North Korea’s Threats to Cancel Summit With Trump

WASHINGTON — The White House brushed aside threats by North Korea on Wednesday to cancel an upcoming summit meeting between President Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, saying it was still “hopeful” the meeting will happen — but that Mr. Trump would be fine if it did not.

“The president is ready if the meeting takes place,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told Fox News on Wednesday. “And if it doesn’t, we will continue the maximum pressure campaign that has been ongoing.”

White House officials said they were taking North Korea’s latest warnings in stride, in part because Mr. Kim, not Mr. Trump, had sought the meeting. They said they expected the North to maneuver for tactical advantage in the run-up to the meeting, which is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

When Mr. Trump was asked on Wednesday about the prospects for the summit to go off as planned, he was noncommittal, telling reporters in the Oval Office, “We’ll have to see.” Mr. Trump said he would still insist on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the talks.

In its warning on Wednesday, North Korea said Mr. Kim could withdraw from the meeting over Washington’s demand that it unilaterally abandon its nuclear arsenal.

The sudden change came after months in which Mr. Kim presented himself as a statesman, changing his image from tyrant to moderate on the world stage. By issuing the latest threat, the North reverted to his earlier hard-line stance on retaining nuclear weapons and to a North Korean playbook that includes sudden shifts in tactics when negotiating with other nations.

But American officials acknowledged that the North appeared to be seeking to exploit a gap in the administration’s messages about North Korea — between the hard-line views of the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and the more conciliatory tone of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has met twice with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the summit.

In a recent television interview, Mr. Bolton said the precedent for the North Korea negotiations should be Libya, which agreed to box up its entire nuclear program and ship it out of the country. Mr. Bolton said North Korea should receive no benefits, including the lifting of sanctions, until it had surrendered its entire nuclear infrastructure.

Mr. Pompeo, by contrast, put the emphasis on the American investment that would flow into North Korea if it agreed to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. He, too, said that the North would have to agree to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization,” the technical shorthand used by the administration to describe its bargaining position with Pyongyang.

The president has shifted between a hard-line and more conciliatory tone in his statements about the North, although in recent days he has expressed excitement about a potential breakthrough with Mr. Kim. He has not yet responded to the warning Wednesday issued by the North’s first vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-gwan, which took direct aim at Mr. Bolton.

People close to the White House said the uncoordinated nature of the statements reflected the newness of the president’s national security team, but also the fact that Mr. Trump was distracted by the swirl of legal issues around him, from the Russia investigation to payments his personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, made to a pornographic film actress.

Some officials suggested that Mr. Trump needed to rein in Mr. Bolton, though they expressed few qualms about the White House’s broader strategy. Officials noted that the United States had not made any concessions to Mr. Kim, beyond agreeing to the meeting itself. Mr. Kim has agreed to stop nuclear and missile tests and to blow up an underground nuclear site in the presence of foreign journalists.

While the daylight between Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo gives the North Koreans the opportunity to drive a wedge between members of the president’s national security team, officials said that was a more manageable problem than when Mr. Trump publicly undercut Mr. Pompeo’s predecessor as secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, over how to deal with North Korea.

Assessing the North’s recent statements, Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said North Korea had begun to fear looking weak by taking unilateral steps, like its moratorium on missile tests. He noted that the United States, rather than offering concessions of its own, has vowed to keep up its maximum pressure on the North if it fails to quickly denuclearize.

“The last thing Kim Jong-un can afford is to look like he is surrendering his nuclear weapons,” Mr. Koh said.

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, with Mr. Kim saying his country wants to enter talks with the United States as an equal nuclear power.

Few analysts said North Korea 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 known as Max Thunder with the United States that began last week.

When Mr. Kim met with President Xi Jinping of China twice in the past two months, he sought support for his country’s longstanding demand that Washington and its allies take “synchronized” steps to satisfy the North’s security needs in return for any “phased” moves toward denuclearization.

North Korea turned to China because, as the North’s biggest economic benefactor, it can provide the best economic and political cover as Mr. Kim confronts Mr. Trump over his demands.

When South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, met China’s premier, Li Keqiang, in Tokyo a week ago, the two urged Washington to address North Korea’s concerns about its long-term security.

The two leaders agreed that “rather than asking North Korea to make unilateral concessions, the international community, including the United States, should actively participate in guaranteeing a bright future for the North, including security guarantees and assistance for economic development, if it denuclearizes completely,” Mr. Moon’s office said at the time.

Cheon Seong-whun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said North Korea’s main goal in coming negotiations with the United States was to “weaken the influence of American forces in Korea.”

One aim is to try to stop the United States military from bringing nuclear-capable aircraft or vessels to Korea. That was why on Wednesday the North vehemently protested South Korean news reports that American B-52 long-range bombers and F-22 stealth fighter jets had participated in the current drills, Mr. Cheon said.

The United States military denied the participation of B-52s, saying that Washington and Seoul had decided not to include them in the exercises “some time ago,” said Col. Chad Carroll, a spokesman for American forces in South Korea. But the participation of F-22 stealth jets will not be affected by the North Korean protest, the South’s military said.

In China, analysts said that Mr. Kim’s about-face was a return to his normal behavior. The trajectory of the past several months was uncharacteristic, they said.

“Kim Jong-un has been soft like a dove, but he also has a side to him like an eagle,” said Wu Qiang, a writer on current affairs and former lecturer at Tsinghua University. “This change of mind is more normal.”

Mark Landler reported from Washington, Choe Sang-Hun from Seoul and Jane Perlez from Beijing. Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.