Officials say Kim Jong Un warned his generals ahead of Trump summit
By Barbara Starr and Kylie Atwood, CNN
8 hrs ago
SAUL LOEB/AFP/AFP/Getty Images North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un listens to US President Donald Trump (not pictured) during a meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 27, 2019. (Photo by Saul LOEB / AFP)
In one of the clearest signs of just how much Kim Jong Un wanted an agreement at what became the failed Hanoi summit in February with President Donald Trump, CNN has learned that the North Korean leader gave specific orders to his generals to not carry out any unplanned activity in the days and weeks leading up the meeting, according to a senior South Korean official and a US defense official.
The US official added that Kim was worried any inadvertent movement of his military units would raise tensions leading up to the summit. He issued specific orders that forces stay in place in a passive status, without any indication they were moving in the field.
His goal was to ensure existing military confidence building measures would remain in place, especially in the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, with the aim of helping him convince Trump to ease sanctions on the regime.
The previously undisclosed orders by the North Korean leader and the subsequent failure to convince Trump to agree to a partial lifting of sanctions without a move towards denuclearization have underscored the assessment by the US that Kim thought he could convince Trump to agree. "He underestimated the President," the official said.
North Korean forces subsequently returned to their regular deployment status. The orders did not involve missile and nuclear sites which are always under Kim's strict controls, according to the official.
The orders issued by Kim prior to the summit would have significantly reduced the ability of the units affected to suddenly fire their weapons. The US saw no evidence that North Korea was intending any provocation using its conventional forces, suggesting Kim's order may have had more to do with his worries about a sudden mistake in the field.
Several senior US military officials continue to say, for now, they see no evidence Kim is planning any satellite or missile launch, or nuclear test, all of which would be seen by the US as a major provocation. His priorities still appear to be getting sanctions relief from the US and trying to forge more economic links with South Korea -- essentially splitting South Korean President Moon Jae-in from the US position on denuclearization.
US is 'ready to respond'
General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday the US is "ready to respond" if Kim reverses course on lowered tensions and a crisis broke out on the peninsula.
"I can't project what the President may decide in the event that Kim Jong Un doesn't keep his word. But I can tell you from a preparedness perspective we are ready to respond in the event of any contingency or crisis on the Peninsula," he added after a meeting with South Korean defense minister Jeong Kyeong-doo.
In reference to recent activity at a North Korean rocket launch site Jeong said it was "too early to tell "whether this is an effort by North Korea to add another card to the negotiation table or whether they are actually preparing for an actual missile launch." He added that South Korean and US intelligence agencies are working together to "monitor the activity."
Several US officials have noted recent construction and maintenance activity at the site but say for now they see no indications of preparations for a satellite launch and other steps would have to be taken before that could even happen.
Dunford also reiterated Tuesday that the scaling bac k of military exercises with South Korea has not impacted readiness. "We're comfortable with the path of exercises that we have scheduled in the coming months. And confident that we can maintain the appropriate level of readiness and that was another key issue that we would want to affirm"
"In all sincerity we did not have any readiness concerns, we are still focused on proficiency and mission essential tasks associated with combined command and control," Dunford added.
US views Kim as a 'rational actor'
The defense official emphasized the US continues to view Kim as a "rational actor", who is still determined to maintain an iron grip on power over his military commanders.
Up until now the US has seen no indications that the North Korea is moving towards denuclearization.
"Their activity that we have observed is inconsistent with denuclearization," General Robert Abrams, commander of US forces in Korea told Congress last week.
US intelligence estimates that construction work restoring the satellite launch facility at Tongchang-ri may in the future give the regime a capability to launch a satellite on a long-range rocket, but they do not believe the Kim is planning an immediate launch because he still wants sanctions relief.
Similarly, the US is also monitoring activity at other sites such as the Yongbyon nuclear but they do not believe North Korea is close to a missile launch or nuclear testing in the field. Though officials caution a test could happen at short notice.
That assessment is backed up by the "extraordinary amount" of detailed information the US collects, the official said.
That said, it is still possible the North could at some point fire a long-range ballistic missile which the US may not be able to detect before launch, which is why a denuclearization agreement in vital for US defenses.
The US also believes North Korea is now conducting laboratory testing of its weapons away from the prying eyes of US satellites. "It's very difficult for us to see that," the official said.
General Abrams also warned Congress about the need for an upgrading of intelligence gathering assets if tensions rise again. "As we look to the future as conditions might change, if they change negatively then our stance, our posture is not adequate to provide us an unblinking eye to give us early warning and indicators," he said.
Another reason the US doesn't believe Kim is close to making any decision to resume testing, is they believe he will first talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The assumption is both leaders would try to talk him out of any new launches even though the US believes China in particular is not strictly enforcing sanctions against North Korea. At the same time Kim continues to try to gain concessions from South Korea -- effectively trying to split Moon from Trump.