Less than three weeks ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in spent a day shaking and holding hands, hugging and listening to Korean pop after sunset.
But it looks as though the honeymoon could be over.
On Wednesday, North Korea postponed talks with South Korea and threatened to cancel the summit scheduled with Kim and President Trump on June 12 over joint air force drills taking place in South Korea. North Korea also urged the United States to stop insisting that it should “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear program. The North Korean regime appeared dismayed by U.S. suggestions that a Libya-style solution could work with North Korea. (Libya’s regime was toppled with Western military support after giving up its nuclear weapons program.)
So, why is North Korea suddenly playing tough again after toning down its rhetoric? One answer: Because that’s what it has always done.
Analysts were hardly surprised by Wednesday’s threats, after years of North Korea agreeing to talks and then withdrawing from them. Changing the rhetoric from conciliatory to threatening could also increase the regime’s leeway during the upcoming negotiations. And although Wednesday’s remarks may be unlikely to result in the immediate derailment of denuclearization talks, they do fit a common pattern that has resulted in few concessions over the past few decades.
Here’s a look back at the times the Kim regime followed through on its threats to disrupt talks or ignore agreements.
In 1994, North Korea agrees to halt the construction of two reactors the United States thinks could be used as part of a nuclear weapons program. Instead, according to the agreement, an international consortium is supposed to replace the plutonium reactors with two light-water reactors and the United States agrees to supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil every year during the construction period.
Besides the United States, South Korea, Japan and a European agency form an organization tasked with implementing the accord.
But when George W. Bush becomes president in 2001, it is the United States that walks away from talks with North Korea over concerns that Pyongyang is running a clandestine program. The North ultimately confirms that program’s existence in 2002, rejecting further negotiations, kicking out inspectors and doubling down on its efforts at a time when the United States is preparing its Iraq invasion.
In August 2003, the United States decides to participate in new negotiations with North Korea — the “six-party talks” — alongside China, South Korea, Russia and Japan. Two years later, in February 2005, Pyongyang suspends its involvement in the negotiations, citing U.S. conditions and resistance. After a restart in summer 2005, it again takes only 13 days for negotiations to derail.
Despite suspending its involvement in the talks several times that year, North Korea agrees to end its nuclear weapons program only about half a year later, in September 2005. But once again, North Korea suspends its participation in the talks over U.S. sanctions. Soon thereafter, in October 2006, it launches its first nuclear test.
In 2007, six-party talks resume and North Korea later agrees to major concessions. Some steps are taken to follow through on its promises, but then North Korea rejects U.S. verification methods and violates its own promises, causing the breakdown of negotiations once again.
North Korea rejects U.S. and South Korean promises during new talks. Tensions with South Korea escalate after it accuses the North of having torpedoed one of its navy ships in 2010. Dozens of South Koreans die in the attack.
Weeks after Kim reaches a deal with the United States to suspend its nuclear weapons program, North Korea launches a long-range rocket, causing the agreement to fall apart. The following year, North Korea also cancels scheduled family reunifications ahead of South Korean and U.S. joint military drills.
North Korea rejects any future talks on suspending its nuclear weapons program. After almost being drawn into an open military conflict, North Korea and South Korea engage in talks that quickly fall apart.
In July, North Korea signals that it is willing to negotiate, but subsequently launches a number of missile tests. Tensions further escalate in 2017.
Last month’s Korean summit meeting may have been an unprecedented show of their willingness to keep talking for real, but North Korea’s track record shows how quickly Pyongyang’s mood can swing.