TOKYO — North Korea spurned the top U.S. diplomat as not sufficiently “mature” and offered a hand to Moscow on Thursday in back-to-back moves by Kim Jong Un to possibly reset the terms of his outreach with Washington.
The announcements came hours after North Korea announced it had tested a tactical guided weapon, its first public weapons test since the breakdown of a summit between President Trump and Kim in February.
North Korea further jabbed Washington by announcing it no longer wants to talk to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The statement, carried on state media, demanded that Pompeo be replaced with someone who “is more careful and mature in communicating.”
Then, in Moscow, the Kremlin announced that Kim plans to meet President Vladimir Putin in Russia later this month. For Kim, the planned summit is an opportunity to expand his options and potential leverage with both the United States and the North’s longtime ally, China.
Taken all together, the steps by Kim suggest a push toward bolder initiatives by the North with U.S. talks stalled after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. But it does not appear to signal that Kim wants to break off the dialogue, experts said.
“Kim Jong Un does not intend to walk out of negotiations but shows that he can ‘seek a new way’ in the worst case,” said Lee Jong-Seok, a former South Korean unification minister who is now at the Sejong Institute, a think tank near Seoul.
The apparent snub of Pompeo could also force a revised approach from Trump.
Pompeo’s main offense, in the North Koreans’ eyes, appears to be when he referred to Kim as a “tyrant” during a Senate hearing.
Nevertheless, the North Korean regime is clearly frustrated with denuclearization talks, analysts say, and by what it sees as unreasonable American demands to fully dismantle nuclear facilities before receiving relief from international economic sanctions.
A statement quoting senior North Korean official Kwon Jong Gun, reported by the Korean Central News Agency and picked up by Reuters, said that whenever Pompeo “pokes his nose in, talks between the two countries go wrong without any results even from the point close to success.”
“I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled,” he told KCNA. “Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the U.S., I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but a person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”
In testimony to a Senate subcommittee last week, Pompeo was asked whether he would agree that Kim is a “tyrant.”
“Sure. I’m sure I’ve said that,” Pompeo replied.
This is not the first time Pompeo has felt the heat of North Korean ire. He was accused of making “gangster-like demands” last July shortly after a visit to Pyongyang. But North Korea has been careful to avoid direct criticism of Trump, perhaps believing he is more likely to make concessions if he is flattered.
At the same time, North Korea is making long-anticipated overtures to Putin.
A short statement by the Kremlin said that Putin invited Kim and that the North Korean leader will meet with him in the second half of April. No specific date was announced.
Russian news reports suggest the meeting will take place in Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast, as Putin makes his way to a summit in Beijing.
The planned summit gives Putin another stage to project Russian influence. The Kremlin has tried for months to secure a meeting with Kim, while simultaneously ramping up diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
Russian outreach ramped up in May 2018 with the visit of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang in the first high-level visit by a Russian official to North Korea since 2009. Over the past month, the Russian parliament has sent two delegations and Russian diplomats have been in daily consultations with North Korean officials.
“Russia can have some say in Pyongyang but only if it is going to pay,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Your willingness to pay does not guarantee you will be taken seriously in Pyongyang, but if you don’t pay you are never taken seriously.”
Lankov said Putin was unlikely to offer Kim a major aid package, simply because Russia has more pressing priorities in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. As Lankov put it: Kim knew it wasn’t worth his time and effort until now.
Last week, Kim gave the United States until the end of the year to fundamentally change its stance. In the meantime, Kim will probably be looking to China and Russia for diplomatic support and covert sanctions relief.
He may also have been disappointed that South Korean President Moon Jae-in failed to secure any sanctions relief for North Korea when he visited Trump last week in Washington, experts said.
“Kim needs Putin as leverage with Trump to show him that his ultimate pressure approach is a dud,” said Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign policy analyst.
“But Putin can’t give Kim what he wants most — United Nations Security Council sanctions relief, which the U.S. will veto,” he added.
It was not immediately clear what type of weapon the North Koreans fired in the test. Arms experts said the description of a tactical weapon — with guided flight, capable of carrying a powerful warhead and fired at a variety of targets — suggested a short-range missile rather a longer-range ballistic missile. That would mean the move would not violate North Korea’s self-declared moratorium on testing.
Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, said Kim was sending a signal with the weapons test.
“Kim is trying to make a statement to the Trump administration that his military potential is growing by the day, and that his regime is becoming frustrated with Washington’s lack of flexibility in recent negotiations,” he said.
Bodner reported from Moscow.