Trump is due to meet his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 for high stakes talks aimed at ridding the reclusive state of its newly acquired nuclear weapons and improving ties after decades of animosity.
The summit announcement came after months of unusually cordial diplomacy between the historic foes brokered by South Korea.
But the newfound bonhomie and the meeting’s potential success has been thrown into doubt in recent days with both Washington and Pyongyang raising the prospect of cancelling the talks and trading threats.
The latest broadside from North Korea came Thursday with vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui lambasting a Monday media interview in which Pence warned Kim Jong Un that it would be a “great mistake” to try and play Trump.
Pence also said North Korea could end up like Libya, whose former leader Moamer Khadafi was killed by US-backed rebels years after giving up atomic weapons, “if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal”.
“I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the US vice-president,” Choe said in a statement released by the state-run KCNA news agency.
“We will neither beg the US for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us,” she said, adding she would recommend Kim cancel the talks if Washington continues to make such threats.
Similar comments comparing North Korea to Libya from Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton caused the first threat by Pyongyang last week to cancel the Singapore meeting.
“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,” she added.
Politically, Trump has invested heavily in the success of the planned summit, and so privately most US officials, as well as outside observers, believe it will go ahead.
Hand-picked aides — including deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin and deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel — are traveling to the Southeast Asian city state designated to host the summit, officials said.
They are expected to meet their North Korean counterparts and iron out details of the meeting.
But Trump has also become increasingly lukewarm about meeting Kim, teasing his commitment to talks as keenly as any of his “The Apprentice” season finales.
“On Singapore we’ll see. It could very well happen,” he said Wednesday, adding cryptically: “Whatever it is, we’ll know next week.”
Trump enthusiastically embraced the idea of talks earlier this year — the first ever meeting between a US president and a leader of North Korea.
But as the date draws nearer, the yawning gulf in expectations between the two sides is coming into sharp relief.
Washington has made it clear it wants to see the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” of the North.
But Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrence until it feels safe from what it terms US aggression.
Some analysts have suggested both sides still want to meet in Singapore but are playing hardball in the run up to the summit to leverage a better negotiation position.
Ostensibly the Trump-Kim talks will be about peace on the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons.
But even before talk of test freezes, decommissioning or inspections, Washington and Pyongyang are engaged in a public relations battle.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who has met personally with Kim — said whether the summit goes ahead is now up to North Korea.
“That decision will ultimately be up to Chairman Kim,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “He asked for the meeting, the president agreed to meet with him. I’m very hopeful that that meeting will take place.”
His remarks reflect an effort to perhaps lay the groundwork for blame should the talks fail.