North Korea unlikely to withdraw from talks with President Trump, experts say

Key Points
  • North Korea abruptly canceled talks with South Korea and threatened to withdraw from talks with U.S. President Donald Trump slated for June 12 in Singapore.
  • Experts say it's all part of North Korea's "playbook" and that Kim Jong Un will most likely still attend talks in Singapore to discuss the possibility of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing pictures of US President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018.
Jung Yeon-je | AFP | Getty Images

Despite throwing the widely anticipated June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump into doubt Wednesday, experts say North Korea will most likely still attend talks in Singapore to discuss the possibility of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

"I don't think this is a surprise. I actually think this is part of North Korea's playbook on negotiations," said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"They do this from time to time to create leverage going into negotiations," Collins said, noting that the North reacted similarly ahead of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six-Party Talks, which both addressed the rogue regime's nuclear program.

Unless we come to a crisis point North Korea will not disarm: Sung-Yoon Lee
Unless we come to a crisis point North Korea will not disarm: Sung-Yoon Lee

North Korea abruptly canceled talks with Seoul scheduled for Wednesday and threatened to walk away from the June summit with Washington, blaming the joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises in the region.

The North's state-run news agency described the ongoing military drills as a "provocation" and a test run for a future invasion.

Collins described Pyongyang's reaction to the planned military exercises as a "cover to express their dissatisfaction with a bunch of different issues."

"North Korea does normally take issue with military exercises, but these were announced several weeks ago and even the South Koreans said that Kim Jong Un was willing to overlook the U.S. and South Korean exercises happening in the region," Collins said.

The Pentagon said the U.S. training with the South Koreans is part of an "annual training program to maintain a foundation of military readiness."

"While we will not discuss specifics, the defensive nature of these combined exercises has been clear for many decades and has not changed," Defense Department spokesman U.S. Army Col. Rob Manning said in a statement Tuesday.

North Korea's withdrawal from talks with the United States would deal a major blow to what Trump has already described as his "proudest achievement" — denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Joel Wit, a senior fellow at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute and founder of 38 North, said the move from the North could be a way "to heighten tension around the upcoming summit."

"Just as how President Trump said he'd be willing to walk out of the meeting if it wasn't a good deal, I think they are sort of doing the same thing," Wit said. "I think it's part posturing but also a reflection of some serious substantive difficulties and differences that we need to have worked out before the summit. I mean, leaders don't just come to a meeting and negotiate with each other; everything is worked out beforehand."

Wit, who spent six years working on the Clinton-era Agreed Framework and another 15 years at the State Department engaged in arms control and non-proliferation issues, noted North Korea's aversion to national security advisor John Bolton.

Bolton, a former United Nations ambassador, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled "The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First" weeks before becoming Trump's third national security advisor.

National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House, April 9, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

He was named as one of the points of contention in North Korea's statement Wednesday.

"We do not hide our feeling of repugnance toward him," a North Korean official said of Bolton, warning Trump not to listen to the hard-line advisor.

"They have a long history with John Bolton" who was "sort of the architect of the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework when he was in the Bush administration," Wit says.

What's more, Wit adds that Bolton's recent comments on Libya's dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program did not appeal to the North Koreans.

"North Korea gives up everything including their nuclear weapons and then they get something in return is just something they are not going to do," Wit said. "That is not their model."

Echoing similar sentiments, DJ Peterson, president of Longview Global Advisors, a geopolitics and economic risk advisory group, said the reclusive leader of the North is "watching what is going on in Washington very closely."

"I think they are paying attention to the general chatter in the U.S. media and to Trump's more hard-line team in Washington and John Bolton is a prime example of this," Peterson said.

He also noted that Kim could be concerned with Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

"I think there are emerging concerns in Pyongyang about what they heard from President Trump and his announcement to abandon the Iran nuclear deal," Peterson said. "That probably really worried them, and so they might be thinking of taking a slower approach to these talks."

And while it remains to be seen if North Korea will decide to leave the proposed talks with the U.S., Peterson notes that Kim lacks experience in diplomacy.

"Kim Jong Un has very little international experience, let alone negotiation experience on big issues, so one could expect for him to get cold feet," Peterson said.

WATCH: WH uncertain about N. Korea summit

White House uncertain about North Korea June summit
White House uncertain about North Korea June summit