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North Korea’s latest angry statement toward the US, explained

North Korea is super pissed at Mike Pompeo and John Bolton — but not Trump.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un seems unhappy with how nuclear talks with the US are going.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un seems unhappy with how nuclear talks with the US are going.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea is not happy with how the nuclear negotiations are going — and it wants the Trump administration to know it.

On Thursday, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a scathing statement accusing some (unnamed) members of the Trump administration of “going against the intention of president Trump” to improve relations between the US and North Korea.

“[S]ome high-level officials within the U.S. administration are making baseless allegations against us and making desperate attempts at intensifying the international sanctions and pressure,” the statement says.

The “high-level officials” they’re referring to are almost certainly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is leading the negotiations on the US side, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who also coordinates efforts related to North Korea.

North Korea is mad that Bolton effectively blamed Pyongyang for the sputtering nuclear talks and because the US continues to restrict North Korea’s interactions with the world.

That’s upsetting to Pyongyang, the ministry says, because it has already made some concessions — like stopping missile tests and returning the purported remains of 55 American troops who served in the Korean War — and hoped Washington would do the same by offering concessions of its own.

“Expecting any result, while insulting the dialogue partner and throwing cold water over our sincere efforts for building confidence,” the statement adds, is “a foolish act that amounts to waiting to see a boiled egg hatch out.”

Interestingly, though, the statement goes out of its way not to criticize Trump himself, and even praises him.

“The message is carefully crafted to ensure the blame for these actions does not fall on Trump,” says Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. “This leaves room for Trump to call for a course correction to get negotiations back on track.”

The statement — boiled eggs and all — is the latest sign that both sides have made little progress in their months-long talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.

North Korea is mad about two things: Trump staffers and sanctions

Let’s start with why North Korea put Bolton and Pompeo on its naughty list.

As I reported on Wednesday, Pompeo has repeatedly asked North Korea to give up 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear weapons within six to eight months. So far, the North Koreans have rejected his request every time.

That makes sense: Pyongyang has long called for give and take. North Korea wants something in return every time it offers a concession. That way, the Kim regime might feel the US is serious about working with it to end its nuclear program.

The problem is North Korea says it’s already made several concessions to the Americans, but haven’t received anything in return — instead, officials say, they’ve gotten “gangster-like” demands from Pompeo and antagonistic moves on the international stage.

On July 26, the US blocked the International Olympic Committee’s desire to send sports equipment to North Korea so its athletes can train for future competitions (which the UN Security Council also blocked on Thursday.)

And on August 3, the US Treasury Department placed sanctions on a Russian bank that the US says still does business with North Korea, despite existing measures expressly forbidding that. This kind of thing is the exact opposite of what Pyongyang wants to see from the Americans. North Korea wants to see more money flow into the country in exchange for the concessions it’s already made, not less.

Vipin Narang, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at MIT, says North Korea’s statement effectively boils down to “we did everything we said we would, now it’s your turn to show us the money, literally.” What’s more, North Korea would like to see a declaration to end the Korean War — which technically continues to this day — and the dissolution of a UN military command on the Korean peninsula, Joshua Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Middlebury Institute International Studies, told me.

But Bolton has only piled on. On Tuesday, Bolton told Fox News that “North Korea has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize,” effectively blaming Pyongyang for the stalled negotiations. He has a point: Despite North Korea’s modest concessions, it has taken few meaningful steps to destroy its nuclear arsenal.

Yet separating Trump himself from the criticism lobbed at Pompeo and Bolton wasn’t an accident. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump have established a rapport since Singapore, and Trump has publicly praised Kim for following through on at least one of the promises he made at the summit.

US officials told Reuters on Thursday that the North Koreans “view Trump as a softer touch.” According to those unnamed officials, when a meeting in July between Pompeo and his North Korean counterparts hit a snag, the North Korean negotiators asked Pompeo to step outside and called Trump directly instead.

That means that it’s unlikely negotiations will progress as long as Pompeo and Bolton lead the way — unless they completely change how they’re handling the talks.