President Trump is no stranger to aggressive rhetoric from North Korea, but comments made Thursday by the totalitarian regime name-checked a different target — Vice President Mike Pence. A high-ranking North Korean official called Pence a "political dummy" who made stupid remarks, escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea ahead of a planned June summit in Singapore.
The harsh comments came from Choe Son Hui, a North Korean diplomat who specializes in foreign relationships. According to CNN, Choe is believed to be a "rising star" in North Korea's government. Her comments were in apparent response to statements Pence made during a Monday interview on Fox News. The vice president cited the "Libya model" as one approach the administration is considering in its negotiations with North Korea. To that, Choe said:
I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the US vice president" and called Pence a "political dummy.
Talk of replicating the "Libya model" originated with Trump's recently appointed national security adviser, John Bolton. Muammar Gaddafi lost power in Libya and was beaten and killed at the hands of an angry mob of rebels in 2011, less than eight years after agreeing to abandon his nuclear ambition. Gaddafi's is not a legacy to which one aspires.
With Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled to meet in Singapore on June 12, the heightening tensions between the two nations come just weeks ahead of the historic summit. Should the meeting go forward as planned, it will mark the first time a U.S. president has ever met face-to-face with North Korea. And as Stephen Collinson explained at CNN, the status Trump will be granting Kim by meeting on equal footing puts enormous pressure on the president to deliver substantial progress toward denuclearization in North Korea.
But many experts speculate that the odds of Kim surrendering nuclear power are very long. And that may explain the shifting rhetoric from the Trump administration about its expectations concerning the summit. Speaking from the White House on Tuesday, Trump said, "There's a very substantial chance that it won't work out." The "it" reference referred to the upcoming June 12 meeting.
The comments from Trump came in the midst of a meeting in Washington with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon is personally invested in ensuring the summit goes forward as planned. As the Los Angeles Times' Matt Stiles reports, Moon is a child of North Korean refugees and has long advocated for an end to the stand-off between South Korea and its northern neighbor.
Earlier this week, Trump tempered his hedging on the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming June summit by sounding a few notes of optimism. "North Korea has a chance really to be a great country and I think they should seize the opportunity and we'll soon find out whether they want to do that," he said during his meeting in the Oval Office with Moon.
In a seeming gesture of its own commitment to the summit, North Korea announced Thursday that it had destroyed its nuclear test site. USA Today cited South Korean journalists who reported that five explosions have taken out at least three tunnels and several other structures at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site. According to USA Today, international journalists — including those from the United States and the United Kingdom — were brought along to witness the demolition. However, there were reportedly no experts in explosives there to confirm the impact of the blasts.
The destruction of a nuclear test site sends a different message than name-calling Pence a "dummy." North Korea's intentions to attend the June summit with Trump remain inscrutable as ever.