Five takeaways on the canceled Trump summit with Kim
President Trump’s decision to cancel a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has left a sense of unease over the region’s future that many had hoped wouldn’t return after a tumultuous 2017.
The cancellation wasn’t a complete surprise given the ramped-up rhetoric from Pyongyang over the past week. For Trump, the summit’s proverbial nail in the coffin appeared to be North Korea’s Wednesday night statement calling Vice President Pence a “political dummy” and threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” if there was no meeting.
By Thursday morning, Trump had dictated a letter to Kim saying that “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement” the summit that had been planned for June 12 in Singapore “will not take place.”
Here are five takeaways from that decision.
The likelihood of war has increased
This year had seen a reprieve from the nuclear saber rattling of 2017, but with the summit off, experts predict North Korea will resume its missile testing, raising the possibility of a U.S. military response.
“The world is not safer the day after the decision is made not to meet,” said Robert Gallucci, the chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korea nuclear crisis. “I did not enjoy 2017 as a North Korea-U.S. year, and I’m afraid we’re back in the soup now.”
The Pentagon says U.S. military posture has not changed as a result of the talks faltering.
“We want to be ready to respond quickly to anything, but it’s not a heightened state of vigilance,” Joint Staff Director Kenneth McKenzie told reporters. “It’s the normal state of vigilance that we maintain.”
Asked later Thursday whether a military confrontation is closer, a senior White House official said there’s “nothing to say in that respect,” but highlighted Trump’s pledge that the so-called maximum pressure campaign would continue as before.
This could be a negotiating tactic
Trump is not closing the door to rescheduling the summit with Kim should he agree to the United States’ demands for complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.
“It’s possible that the existing summit could take place or a summit at some later date,” Trump said in comments at the White House.
He added that if Kim takes “constructive actions” before June 12, “I am waiting,” but also that “we have to get it right.”
Some Republican senators say Trump is using a negotiating tactic straight out of “The Art of the Deal”: be willing to walk away from the table.
“I believe what we’re seeing is a continuation of President Trump’s tough talk and clear expectations for North Korea,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement. “As long as the regime in Pyongyang remains economically and diplomatically isolated from the world, I believe that they will be willing to come back to the table.”
Democrats are warning diplomacy is different than business.
“The art of diplomacy is a lot harder than the art of the deal,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said.
Rocky relations with China may have had ripple effect
Kim’s change in tone came shortly after his second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It’s unclear if anything Xi said is the reason for Kim’s shift, but Trump thinks it’s a factor.
Trump hinted at his belief earlier this week when he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying, “I’m a little disappointed because when Kim Jong Un had the meeting with President Xi in China … I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong Un.”
The senior White House official said Thursday the administration “can only speculate” as to what happened at the Xi–Kim meeting, but that the “shift in attitude did not go unnoticed.”
The United States and China have been at loggerheads over Trump’s trade policies, and some analysts have suggested Xi could be using North Korea as leverage in the trade negotiations.
“I’m growing more and more accustomed to the idea that China is using North Korea as leverage on trade,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, adding of Xi’s thinking: “I can be very helpful when it comes to North Korea or I can let the border be porous and wreck the maximum pressure campaign.”
Secretary of State Pompeo, though, said there are no signs China has lessened its pressure on Pyongyang.
“We haven’t seen anything to suggest they’ve violated the Security Council resolutions in a substantial way,” Pompeo said Thursday.
Both sides got cold feet
Whatever the reason, Kim’s thinking did appear to change.
Pompeo said Thursday he very clearly explained the U.S. stance in his two meetings with Kim and that he believed Kim understood those terms of negotiating.
“When I heard back from him, there was little doubt in my mind that he understood the scope of what we were asking for or the nature of what would have to take place, the verification that we would need to take in order to be comfortable that we could begin to deliver the assurances he in return asked for,” Pompeo said.
For whatever reason, North Korea decided it was willing to risk tanking the summit with its return to aggressive rhetoric, analysts suggest.
“Before issuing that statement, I don’t think they were going, ‘I wonder if this is how you prepare for a summit,’” Gallucci said.
He said it’s possible North Korea was ready to go further with its rhetoric to prevent the summit from taking off.
“Or maybe they said, ‘Shit, we don’t care. If this doesn’t work, we’ll call the president stupid and ignorant,’” he sad.
Meanwhile, those who had been arguing for weeks that the United States and North Korea have fundamentally different definitions of denuclearization said Thursday it appears the Trump administration has come to that realization as well.
“It was night and day. There was no way to bridge that within weeks,” Kazianis said.
The White House official said it was a “trail of broken promises that gave the United States pause.” Those broken promises included North Korea standing up a U.S. planning team in Singapore, cutting off telephone communications and not inviting expert inspectors to the shuttering of its nuclear test site.
Trump’s hawks flex their muscles
Trump agreed to the meeting with Kim back when H.R. McMaster was his national security adviser and Rex Tillerson was his secretary of State.
When Trump named John Bolton to replace McMaster and Pompeo to replace Tillerson, critics lamented that those two had hawkish tendencies that could spoil the diplomatic opening.
One of the first signs of trouble for the summit came after Bolton suggested North Korea could follow the “Libya model.”
Libya entered into a denuclearization agreement with the United States in 2003, but Pyongyang sees the reference as a threat since Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi was ousted from power and killed by NATO-back rebels eight years later.
North Korea’s second threat to cancel the summit last week called out Bolton’s statement, and its statement on Pence was in response to the vice president’s own “Libya model” comments.
Asked how much of a factor the Libya comments were to North Korea’s change, the White House official noted Pyongyang’s statements had a “litany” of objections.
But with the summit toast, critics said the administration undermined its own efforts.
“From an impromptu announcement of the summit by a mid-level South Korean diplomat in the White House driveway, to the unhelpful comments by John Bolton and Vice President Pence regarding their affection for the ‘Libya model’, the lead up to the meeting has been as discombobulated as everything else in this White House’s foreign policy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “But I still hope these talks happen, because the alternative — the White House war cheerleaders using this failure as an excuse to move toward military action — is unacceptable.”
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