Mike Pence, the US vice-president has warned North Korea not to try to "play" President Donald Trump, who is willing to "walk away" from the negotiating table if his planned summit with Kim Jong-un fails.
"It would be a great mistake for Kim Jong-un to think it could play Donald Trump," Mr Pence told Fox News on Monday, adding that the president was not thinking about public relations, but "thinking about peace".
Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s leader, will meet Donald Trump, the US president, in Washington on Tuesday for talks on how to keep a June Singapore summit with North Korea on track, amid growing concerns that Washington will not be able to strike a deal on denuclearisation.
Their meeting had been scheduled for some time, to fine-tune the details of how Mr Trump should approach his June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un. But Mr Moon’s trip has now evolved into a crisis session after an unexpectedly fractious week during which Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the summit altogether.
After months of warm relations between South and North Korea that began with the Winter Olympics, the mood suddenly soured last week when Pyongyang hit out over joint US-South Korean military exercises that it believes are a rehearsal for invasion, calling Seoul “ignorant and incompetent".
The North abruptly cancelled a high-level meeting with the South on Wednesday and then took aim at John Bolton, the US national security adviser, for suggesting they could follow a so-called “Libya model" of denuclearisation. Libya, they retorted, had met a "miserable fate".
Analysts have cautioned that invoking memories of Libya, whose dictator Muammar Gaddafi was brutally killed by rebels eight years after he renounced his nuclear programme, will not encourage progress with North Korea.
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But Mr Pence, in his Fox interview, reinforced the Libya message. "There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal," he said.
Despite the tensions, Nam Gwan-pyo, a deputy director at the presidential national security office, told the Yonhap news agency that Tuesday’s meeting would “play a role as a bridge” between the US and North Korea, to ensure the success of the upcoming summit with Kim.
They would likely discuss “ways to guarantee a bright future for the North when North Korea achieves complete denuclearisation,” he added. Mr Moon is also expected to advise the US president on what to expect from Kim, based on his own encounter with him at a summit on the inter-Korean border in April.
But Mr Moon may also face tough questions from the US president over whether he and his administration, in their eagerness to make progress with the North, may have exaggerated Kim’s willingness to negotiate over the dismantling of his nuclear weapons programme.
"It increasingly looks like the Moon administration overstated North Korea’s willingness to deal. Moon will probably get an earful over that," said Robert Kelly, a professor of political science at South Korea’s Busan university.
Administration officials told the Times that the president had been surprised and angered by a statement from the North’s chief nuclear negotiator late last week that the country would not trade away its nuclear weapons capability in exchange for economic aid.
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Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that Mr Bolton does not trust that the summit will go well, even though aides have stressed that the president is still committed to go ahead.
“It doesn’t look like they want to denuclearise at all,” said an unnamed US official about the North Koreans, echoing long-standing warnings from North Korea experts that Pyongyang will not simply hand over its entire nuclear arsenal, which it regards as a security guarantee, but instead expects mutual disarmament.
Many analysts fear that the collapse of the Singapore talks could accelerate military confrontation.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, a small group of international journalists travelled to North Korea to cover the dismantling of the country’s nuclear test site later this week.
The Punggye-ri site will be taken apart to implement Pyongyang’s recently announced moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
It has been welcomed as a positive gesture ahead of the June summit, although experts have cautioned that it is only a gesture, and that it could either be reversed or a new test site could be built.
In a troubling sign for the recent conciliatory relationship with Seoul, South Korean journalists were not permitted to join the trip in a sudden U-turn by Pyongyang.