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North Korea buying time to hide nukes with threats to Trump-Kim summit, intel officials say

A photo released by KCNA news agency on March 12, 2013, shows North Korea leader Kim Jong Un visiting the Wolnae-do Defence Detachment on the western front line. (KCNA/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT)
May 18, 2018

Intelligence officials suspect that North Korea’s sudden threat to cancel the upcoming summit with the U.S. is a way for the country to buy time in order to hide its nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang is reportedly concerned about President Trump’s all-or-nothing approach to denuclearization, the Washington Times reported this week.

North Korea’s threat to abandon the summit was largely a propaganda ploy for Kim Jong Un to show his audience that he is not willing to surrender to Trump’s demands, intelligence officials said.

The move could also leave them an out if they decide to conceal their nuclear weapons and dismantle certain facilities, officials said.

“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.

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“They may be attempting to sanitize their facilities right now while also trying to buy more time for that,” he said.

With the Trump Administration pressing for total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, intelligence officials said that North Korea has labeled the proposition as a “Libya model.” The label refers to U.S. relations with the north African country back in 2003, when then President George W. Bush struck a deal with Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi to forfeit his nuclear materials in exchange for sanctions relief. The problem, North Korea says, is that Gadhafi’s regime was then toppled and Gadhafi ultimately shot by rebel forces.

“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue,” North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said.

“It is essentially a manifestation of an awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq, which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers,” the North Korean vice foreign minister said.

Michael Pillsbury, an expert on North Korea at the Hudson Institute, said that North Korea is likely trying to take the Libya model off the table.

“This was an attack motivated by [U.S. National Security Advisor] John Bolton’s TV comments about the Libya model and this idea that North Korea is going to quickly pack its nuclear program in boxes and ship it off to the U.S.,” he said. “This was North Korea foreclosing one option, the Libya option, ahead of the Trump-Kim summit.”

Pillsbury stressed that any sort of denuclearization would be a long and delicate process, but plenty of other options still exist for the Trump Administration.

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“Common sense tells you that if they have between 10 and 60 nuclear weapons, they’re going to have a hell of a lot more boxes than the Libyans had,” Pillsbury said. “The idea of ‘trust but verify’ will need some aspect of denuclearization to take place quickly and up-front, but we’re not talking 24 hours; it’s more like at least a year.”