International Affairs

North Korea fires insults at US, spares Trump

A year after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s historic first meeting with President Trump, his government is once again hurling insults at the U.S.—while keeping Mr. Trump out of the rhetorical line of fire.

Kim Jong Un, waving, attended a performance in Pyongyang this month. President Trump said he has maintained warm relations with the North Korean leader.

During the eight months between the leaders’ summits in Singapore and Vietnam, the North Korean foreign ministry, despite diplomatic squabbles, published just a few attacks on Washington.

But since leaving Hanoi in early March without a nuclear deal, North Korea has unleashed at least 10 reports lashing out at senior Trump administration officials and their maneuvers.

Mr. Trump is the focal point of the isolated regime’s top-down negotiating strategy and, despite the insults, Mr. Kim has sought to keep him engaged. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump said he received a “very personal, very warm” letter from Mr. Kim.

The foreign ministry, meanwhile, has been firing off angry dispatches, keeping the messaging centralized and more official than the routine diatribes in state-media commentaries.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is a “human defect,” the ministry declared on May 27 after he asserted a recent weapons launch by Pyongyang violated a United Nations testing ban.

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in April that working-level talks could conclude by year’s end, North Korea complimented his talents in “fabricating stories like a fiction writer.”

And last week, Pyongyang questioned Washington’s commitment to the Singapore pact, in which the two sides pledged to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula with denuclearization and new relations. “There is a limit to our patience,” the Kim regime said.

The missives, more one-liner than red alert, reflect how North Korea remains open to further talks but has few options—including risky weapons tests—to bend negotiations in its favor.

For Pyongyang, the state dispatches must convey frustration while tiptoeing around wording that would signal rash military action or upset Mr. Trump.

“The thing that North Korea fears more than pressure is being ignored,” said Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist at the Perth USAsia Centre in Australia.

The attacks have increased as the Kim regime continues to fume over gridlocked nuclear talks, a standstill that leaves in place sanctions bruising the country’s economy. Eight of the foreign-ministry missives have occurred since May 1.

Pyongyang appears to be recalibrating its nuclear-negotiating strategy, North Korea watchers say.

The pause in talks differs from the scene a year ago. In Singapore, Messrs. Trump and Kim exchanged a historic handshake and pledged to improve ties.

After the Hanoi summit’s abrupt ending, North Korea remained quiet until April 18, when it slammed Mr. Pompeo, calling for a new negotiating counterpart from Washington.

The string of foreign-ministry statements have since addressed a seized North Korean cargo ship, Pyongyang’s human-rights violations and U.S. military strategy in the India-Pacific region.

The wording, though pointed, has refrained from making direct threats on the U.S. or against Mr. Trump and many of the attacks haven’t been shared domestically, an indication of the North’s unwillingness to commit to a specific course of action, said Rachel Lee, a former senior North Korea analyst for the U.S. government.

“They are keeping the door open to dialogue,” said Ms. Lee, who now works at NK News, a group covering North Korea.

North Korea has deployed garish state-media attacks before. In 2005, Pyongyang called President George W. Bush a “philistine whom we can never deal with.” The isolated regime hurled racist slurs at President Obama while in office. Mr. Bolton, during six-party talks in the early 2000s, was called an “animal running about recklessly.”

Those public offensives were largely ignored by Washington, though Mr. Trump has reacted to North Korean state media in the past. In September 2017, Mr. Kim described Mr. Trump as “the mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Hours later, Mr. Trump responded with a tweet calling Mr. Kim “a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people.”

The two leaders exchanged barbs in early January 2018 about nuclear buttons on their desks. But when relations warmed, the two countries were quick to affirm closeness.

“What’s different this time is the North Koreans have never had anybody on the other end, taking their monologue to be a dialogue,” said Mason Richey, a professor at Seoul’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who studies the regime’s state media.

During the negotiating impasse, the North’s more prominent state-media strategy only invites misinterpretations because the Kim regime isn’t available to explain its side or discuss possible solutions, said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“The problem with this method is that it’s not a two-way conversation,” Ms. Kim said.

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