SEOUL - North Korea has directed a wave of criticism at top White House officials, as talks with the United States have stalled. But one person Pyongyang hasnt criticized: Donald Trump.
The pattern reflects North Koreas apparent preference to continue negotiating directly with Trump, who has taken a more conciliatory approach to the nuclear talks than many of his deputies.
It also appears to be a carefully calibrated effort by North Korea to increase negotiating pressure on the U.S. without completely derailing the talks.
Theyre good at drawing the line, says David Kim, who specializes in East Asia security policy at the Washington-based Stimson Center. As long as they dont bash Trump, well be OK.
North Korea has bashed plenty of other U.S. officials in recent weeks.
Pompeo talking nonsense, North says
Last week, after announcing the test of a tactical guided weapon, North Korean state media took aim at U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo is talking nonsense and fabricating stories like a fiction writer, said the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), quoting a foreign ministry official.
Whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in, the talks go wrong, said the official, who called for Pompeo to be removed from the negotiating team.
North Korea was apparently unhappy with a recent Senate hearing during which Pompeo agreed with the characterization of Kim Jong Un as a tyrant.
Pyongyang has also accused Pompeo of making unreasonable denuclearization demands during meetings with his North Korean counterparts.
Pompeo downplayed the comments, insisting last week hes still in charge of the team negotiating with North Korea.
North Korea: Bolton dim-sighted
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, who North Korea once referred to as human scum and a bloodsucker, also received the KCNA treatment last week.
He looks dim-sighted to me, a North Korean foreign ministry official said of the glasses-wearing Bolton. We have never expected that adviser Bolton would ever make a reasonable remark.
Bolton, who also dealt with North Korea during the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, is one of Washingtons most hawkish officials on North Korea issues.
Just a month before joining the Trump administration last year, Bolton wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal titled: The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.
Bolton has also angered North Korea by proposing it follow Libyas model of unilaterally handing over its entire nuclear program.
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program in the early 2000s; he was killed by protesters during a NATO-backed uprising against his rule in 2011.
Trump-Kim ties excellent
In contrast to its treatment of Pompeo and Bolton, North Korea has gone out of its way to praise the friendly relations between Trump and Kim.
The personal chemistry between Trump and Kim is still mysteriously wonderful, senior North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui said in March.
Trump and Kim werent always friendly. In 2017, Trump dubbed Kim Little Rocket Man and threatened to totally destroy North Korea amid North Koreas repeated nuclear and missile tests. Kim returned the threats of nuclear war and referred to Trump as a dotard.
Trump now insists his friendship with Kim could be key to convincing the young North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons.
We fell in love, Trump said last year, touting the beautiful letters he has exchanged with Kim.
Given Trumps softer approach, North Korea likely believes it can get a better deal if it negotiates directly with Trump, analysts say.
They still have trust in President Trump, says Kim Joon-hyung, a professor at South Koreas Handong Global University. So they are trying to separate him from his staff.
Trump overrules the hawks
Trump has repeatedly disagreed with and sometimes overruled the North Korea policies of his more hawkish deputies.
For example, although Bolton and some senior State Department officials have spoken about timelines for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, Trump regularly insists he is in no hurry.
Trump has overruled some of his top advisors, including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with his decision to suspend large-scale military exercises with South Korea.
Last month, after the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against two Chinese shipping companies because of deliveries to North Korea, Trump abruptly reversed the move. A day earlier, Bolton had publicly praised the sanctions on Twitter.
In explaining the sanctions reversal, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesnt think these sanctions will be necessary.
So whats next?
Even though Trump and Kim have stopped insulting each other for now, the talks remain stalled.
Despite two summits between Trump and Kim, U.S. officials now acknowledge they have not even reached an agreement on what the idea of denuclearization means.
With such fundamental disagreements, its not clear that personal diplomacy alone can rescue the talks. And both sides appear to be hardening their stances.
Trump says he is not willing to relax sanctions unless North Korea agrees to completely dismantle its nuclear program. Pyongyang has offered only partial dismantlement in exchange for lifting most U.N. sanctions.
In a speech earlier this month, Kim said he was open to a third summit with Trump. But he gave the U.S. until the end of the year to change its approach.