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Slamming on the brakes

May 26,2018
North Korea on Thursday claimed to have demolished its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, from which tremors traveled metaphorically around the world through six detonations of nuclear devices over the last 12 years. Explosions were set off in three tunnels and observed by reporters from South Korea and four other countries: the United States, United Kingdom, China, and Russia. A fourth tunnel, where the first test was conducted in 2006, was already abandoned and never used again.

The moment North Korea pressed the metaphorical button to demolish its nuclear testing site, it was claiming to the world that it was genuine about progressing with dismantlement and denuclearization of some sort.

Before the day ended, though, news arrived from Washington that U.S. President Donald Trump was calling off the June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un because he felt it “inappropriate at this time” given the “tremendous anger and open hostility” Pyongyang has lately expressed. Trump did not specifically name which statement annoyed him so much that he had to cancel the meeting.

But given the timeline, he was probably referring to the outbursts by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui who, according to the Korean Central News Agency earlier Thursday, called Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” and warned of a “nuclear showdown” with the U.S.

Choe lambasted Pence for “stupid” remarks suggesting North Korea might end up like Libya if its leader refuses to give up his nuclear arsenal, and added that she would suggest the supreme leadership reconsider the June summit. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan earlier had castigated U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton for referencing the Libya model for denuclearizing Pyongyang.

Hawks in both Washington and Pyongyang have used saber-rattling to ruining the momentum for the historic meeting. The harsh statements avoided outright criticism of Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited Pyongyang twice. Brinkmanship has always played a pivotal part in deal-making. Trump knows how to play the game.

Officials from Pyongyang and Washington had planned to hold working-level meetings in Singapore over the weekend. The cancellation in the wake of North Korea’s dismantling of its nuclear test site puts Seoul in an odd spot. There may be still a chance. Seoul should mediate and Pyongyang should refrain from tit-for-tat verbal attacks. We have come too close to the path of denuclearization and lasting peace to go back.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 25, Page 30