PYONGYANG, North Korea — A North Korean official has lashed out at US Vice President Mike Pence and said Pyongyang is ready for a nuclear showdown if dialogue with the United States fails.
Choe Son Hui, a vice-minister in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, said if the US continued on its current path, she would suggest to North Korea’s leadership that they reconsider the planned summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States,” Choe said in comments carried by North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency Thursday.
Choe was responding to comments by Pence made Monday during a Fox News interview that she deemed “unbridled and impudent.”
North Korea is known for its fiery rhetoric, but these latest comments are particularly noteworthy because they come directly from a high-ranking official and so close to the summit — which is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
“It’s clear that the North Koreans feel the White House doesn’t get it,” said Jean Lee, the director of the Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Wilson Center.
Choe took particular issue with Pence’s remarks about US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said the US would look to the negotiations with Libya during the early 2000s when dealing with North Korea.
“There was some talk about the Libya model,” Pence told Fox News’ Martha MacCallum. “As the President made clear, this will only end like the Libya model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
When MacCallum said that some people may have seen Bolton’s comments as a threat, Pence said “I think it’s more of a fact.”
North Korea has long cited Libya’s case as the reason it needs nuclear weapons. Less than a decade after Moammar Gadhafi agreed to abandon its nuclear aspirations in a deal with the United States, he was ousted from power and killed with the help of NATO-backed forces.
“They (the North Koreans) are very proud, they don’t like being bullied and they certainly don’t like the repeated references to Libya and the repeated reference to its poverty,” Lee said.
Adam Mount, the director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, believes Pence’s comments were the “most explicit regime change threat yet” from the Trump administration.
“The Libya analogy is deliberately inflammatory. It never applied to North Korea and is useful neither to convey resolve or to set expectations on nuclear issues,” he told CNN in an email.
Choe called Pence a “political dummy” for comparing Libya to North Korea. She noted that Libya’s nuclear program was in its early stages when it came to the negotiating table, while North Korea has spent years developing its nuclear weapons.
“As a person involved in the US affairs, I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the US vice president,” she said.
Pence has been vocal critic of North Korea and its human rights abuses.
While representing the United States at the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year, he brought along the father of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who was imprisoned in North Korea and died shortly after his return to the United States in a vegetative state. At the opening ceremony, he chose to ignore Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, when sitting feet away from her.
Analysts believe that Choe, a diplomat who focuses on the US-North Korea relationship, is a rising star in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry. She was reportedly promoted to vice minister earlier this year.
Summit preparations underway
Trump and Kim’s summit will be the the first meeting between a sitting US President and North Korean leader, but the North Koreans have expressed displeasure over recent comments by the United States and joint military exercises between Washington and Seoul.
The North Koreans have largely spared Trump from the charged insults aimed at Bolton and Pence. Trump, for his part, has shifted to a more positive tone when discussing North Korea’s young leader.
Trump said Tuesday that the meeting could be delayed, but both sides appear to be moving ahead with the planning process.
Top White House officials are expected to travel to Singapore this weekend to work with the North Koreans on logistical and agenda items. The North Koreans are also expected to blow up the tunnels at their nuclear test site in the coming days — a promise Kim made when he met with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in at the end of April.
Speaking alongside his Chinese and Japanese counterparts in Washington, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters he’s hopeful about the prospects.
“I hope that we can have this opportunity, this historic opportunity to do something that would truly transform this global challenge that’s been threatening the world for an awfully long time,” he said.
But a senior administration official involved in the planning process told CNN that Trump’s team wants more high-level talks with Pyongyang before the summit.
Those comments come as the Pentagon made public a study on 2017’s military and security developments in North Korea. The current version of the study, which is produced due to a congressional mandate, was completed before Trump agreed to meet with Kim.
The White House has maintained it will not repeat what it believes were mistakes by previous US administrations — signing on to agreements that were supposed to exchange concessions for steps toward denuclearization over time.
There have been suggestions that Trump may try to negotiate a deal in which the North Koreans give up much of their nuclear weapons at the outset.
But some experts worry about that approach, and it’s unclear if the North Koreans would be interested.
“Pyongyang is trying to shift the discussion away from immediate disarmament and economic benefits and toward a protracted exchange of security concessions,” said Mount of the Federation of American Scientists.
“Dismantling a weapons program this complex would take time to fully understand and safely tear down. It is not reasonable or prudent to rush this process.”