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South Korean marine force members look toward North's side through binoculars at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju near the border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday.Ahn Young-joon/The Canadian Press

The brief appearance of a co-operative North Korea has receded into the shadows, replaced by belligerence and a threat to back out of a summit with the United States as it seeks maximum leverage from a nuclear program it has shown no appetite to dismantle.

North Korea on Wednesday accused the United States of harbouring an “awfully sinister” ambition to bring about its collapse, citing the examples of Libya and Iraq. It said it will reconsider talks with President Donald Trump, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

Mr. Trump on Wednesday acknowledged the uncertainty that now clouds what has promised to be a signature foreign-policy achievement for his administration. Asked if the summit will continue, he said: “We’ll have to see. ... We haven’t been notified at all. ... We haven’t seen anything, we haven’t heard anything.”

The United States will continue to demand denuclearization, he said.

Read more: North, South Korean leaders pledge peace, denuclearization but world awaits action to match symbolism

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But Pyongyang made clear it will not give up its nuclear weapons without extracting major concessions of its own. The “precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States,” North Korea said in a statement attributed to first Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye-gwan.

In the past, that terminology has meant a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear-defence protections for South Korea.

The message: “We won’t agree on unconditional surrender,” said Bong Young-shik, a research fellow with Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“They’re just trying to clarify what they mean by denuclearization,” said Han Seung-ju, a former South Korean foreign minister. Throughout the past few months of a more co-operative North Korean posture, by leaving denuclearization “ambiguous, they managed to entice not only South Korea, but the United States as well to think that they have made a great deal of concessions.”

Now, as the summit “date approaches, they want to make sure that Trump and his people don’t push it too hard.”

The North Korean statement came a week after the White House abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, and days after a series of public statements by senior officials in Washington calling for major concessions from Pyongyang.

North Korea throws next month’s summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump into doubt by threatening to pull out of the meeting if Washington continues to push it for denuclearization.

Reuters

Few observers believe North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will relinquish his country’s first opportunity to meet with a sitting U.S. president. But the dramatic shift in its tone was a reminder that decades of negotiation have failed to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear program, and further underscored the difficulties the Trump White House is likely to encounter as it tries.

“Today’s announcement from North Korea threatening negotiations should remind us that there is no easy or quick path to success,” former U.S. secretary of defence William Perry wrote on Twitter.

North Korea agreed to “complete denuclearization” in the Panmunjom Declaration signed after an April summit between Mr. Kim and South Korea President Moon Jae-in. Tong Zhao, a Beijing-based non-proliferation expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, likened that commitment to former U.S. president Barack Obama’s dream of a nuclear-free world, even if that might not be achieved in his lifetime.

“They never planned on giving up their nuclear weapons any time soon,” Mr. Zhao said.

Mr. Kim is now in the second phase of a two-phase process, he said. The first step was to acquire basic nuclear deterrence. Now, he is using that nuclear capability as a backstop in his efforts to normalize foreign relations. His success in that regard, in showing North Korea to be a reasonable actor, has emboldened him.

“So the U.S. has already lost its leverage, and that gives North Korea confidence that it can inject a sense of reality into the White House. … Forget about denuclearization.”

A man watches a TV screen showing file footage of U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Seoul on Wednesday.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

North Korea’s threats also came as a riposte to triumphal rhetoric from U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who on Sunday told CNN that North Korea’s prospects are “unbelievably strong if they’ll commit to denuclearization.”

That means ridding North Korea of “all aspects of their nuclear program,” he said, in addition to ballistic missiles, along with chemical and biological weapons. It was such a lengthy list of demands that some observers have speculated Mr. Bolton, a noted North Korea hawk, was trying to provoke the failure of talks with Mr. Kim.

North Korea on Wednesday took direct aim at Mr. Bolton, saying “we do not hide our repugnance from him.”

But odds remain good that the summit will continue, Mr. Bolton said, dismissing the North Korean remarks in an interview with Fox News Radio as “nothing new,” and pledging the United States will remain firm in its demands.

Elsewhere, however, North Korea has continued to show signs of a new approach, dispatching envoys this week to learn about China’s economic model.

Threatening to abandon a deal is a time-honoured negotiating strategy. “They need to convey the impression of being able and willing to walk away,” said Christopher Green, an expert on North Korea with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“What did Trump say? ’If the deal is bad, I’ll walk away?’ This is the same thing, done the North Korea way.” It’s “designed to enhance North Korean leverage in discussions, and ensure North Korea doesn’t come off as desperate for help,” Mr. Green said. But, he added, “I wouldn’t read too much into it. This isn’t enough to suggest the summit itself is in doubt.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li