SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's show of reconciliation Friday with South Korea was meant partly to strengthen his hand in a planned meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump as the two prepare to joust over the North's nuclear program.
Kim told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he came to the inter-Korean summit to end a "history of conflict." But the North's real conflict is not with its southern neighbor, but with the U.S., which led the United Nations forces that it fought in the Korean War.
Pyongyang's strategy of crisis diplomacy -- using nuclear and ballistic missile threats to force Washington to the negotiating table -- seems to have borne fruit. With a long-awaited summit expected to take place by early June, the two sides are engaging in a low-key war of words over the central issue of Korean denuclearization.
When Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang in late March, Kim sought to persuade the then-CIA director to consider a phased agreement, with both sides making concessions over the course of several years, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. Pompeo, who was confirmed Thursday as secretary of state, reportedly showed little interest.
The Trump administration looks to break with what it sees as the failure of past attempts at gradual denuclearization. North Korea agreed in the 2000s to a phased arrangement under which it would take such steps as disabling or halting operation of nuclear facilities, in exchange for economic support and easing of sanctions. But this ultimately failed to end the country's nuclear program.
"The U.S. will not be making substantial concessions, such as lifting sanctions, until North Korea has substantially dismantled its nuclear programs," a senior U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal. In other words, Pyongyang will not be rewarded for simply shutting down facilities that are easily restarted.
U.S. media reports indicate that Washington favors big moves by both sides early on. The apparent aim is to get concrete results -- such as preventing the North from developing nuclear weapons -- in a short time.
Trump himself has suggested he will drive a hard bargain, saying that "we're not going to go" to the summit with Kim if he thinks it will not be "fruitful."
Recent U.S. moves seem to back this up. American troops in South Korea held a mass evacuation drill last week alongside joint military exercises, transferring about 100 U.S. civilians to Japan and onward to Texas. Though such drills are a regular occurrence, this reportedly marked the first time evacuees were brought all the way to the U.S. mainland.
Washington probably meant to show Pyongyang that even as it prepares for the summit, it is also ready for trouble on the Korean Peninsula, including a military clash.
Washington's refusal to ease up on the pressure is fueling frustration in Pyongyang. In an editorial Friday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency condemned the sanctions-and-pressure policy as "sleep-talking of those who are still mired in the anachronistic hostile policy toward the DPRK."
"To keep brandishing the rotten 'sanctions' stick, not understanding the trend of the times, will only provoke the laughter of the world," the news service said.