President TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are locked in an international public relations battle after Trump canceled their planned summit.
Pyongyang responded to Trump's cancellation with uncharacteristic graciousness, saying it was still open to talks. Trump replied by saying he hoped for "enduring prosperity and peace,” and later added the summit may take place on its originally scheduled date after all.
The quick about-faces could be signs that the summit can get back on track — or, analysts said, it could be Kim and Trump working to ensure the other one gets the blame for the summit’s failure.
“What we’re into now is a political game,” said Joel Wit, co-founder of U.S.-based North Korea monitor 38 North. “It’s the game to win the hearts and minds of every country, to convince them that ‘No, we’re not at fault; it’s the other guy who’s at fault.’
“And so that’s what the North Koreans are doing, and I don’t know what President Trump is doing. He may be doing that, too.”
Trump and Kim were scheduled to meet June 12 in Singapore to try to make a deal on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
On Thursday, though, Trump canceled in a personally dictated letter to Kim that said the summit could not move forward in light of North Korea’s “tremendous anger and open hostility.”
The cancellation followed several statements from North Korea threatening to walk, including one Wednesday night that called Vice President Pence a “political dummy” and threatened a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” if there’s no meeting. The recent statements also made clear Pyongyang would not accept the United States’s demands for its “unilateral” denuclearization.
Trump, in return, reminded North Korea that U.S. nuclear capabilities are “so massive and powerful” in his letter to Kim.
A day later, though, both sides returned to a more conciliatory tone.
"We reiterate to the U.S. that there is a willingness to sit down at any time, in any way, to solve the problem," a top North Korean official said.
In a tweet, Trump noted the statement’s “warm and positive” tone.
“We’ll see what happens. We’re talking to them now,” Trump said later Friday, adding the summit could even happen June 12. “They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it.”
The erstwhile businessman also suggested the war of words was a way of jockeying for leverage.
“Everybody plays games ... you know that better than anybody,” Trump told a reporter.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea who is now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the latest developments aren’t so much a public relations campaign as a negotiating tactic. He also suggested it was possible Pyongyang realized it overstepped in its rhetoric when Trump canceled.
“Whether it was to maintain goodwill with the South, or whether it was the case that they realized, ‘Our great leader wants to move ahead with summit, and perhaps our language put that in jeopardy’ ” is unclear, he said.
Klingner also said he thinks the summit can move forward after Friday’s more gracious statements, but likely not on June 12 as planned.
“It’s like throwing a wedding together kind of overnight,” he said.
But other analysts said it’s clear from the last few days the Trump administration — like other administrations before it — misunderstands Pyongyang, making it unlikely the summit can happen at all.
“I seriously doubt whether we’re going to get back here anywhere in the near future and maybe not even in this term of this president,” Wit said, adding later, “I guess anything’s possible.”
Even if it does move forward, there’s now a question of what can be accomplished after North Korea made clear it will not accept the U.S. demands for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
The White House now will at least walk in with expectations lowered, Klingner said. Kim wants to make a “grandiose proposal,” he said, such as denuclearization in exchange for normalizing relations, but agreeing to that without working out the finer points could have serious ripple effects, including taking away the legal justification for U.S. troops on the peninsula.
Wit said the Trump administration now knows what Korea-watchers have been saying all along: the most that can come out of the summit is a statement of principles to guide future negotiations.
But with the summit in doubt, Wit said, North Korea is moving to Plan B, which is to ensure the goodwill it established with South Korea, China and Russia in recent months is not squandered.
Kim even held a surprise meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday in the North Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone to discuss the two countries' agreement last month to formally end the decades-long Korean War.
Part of staying on South Korea and other countries’ good sides will include continuing to refrain from missile tests, which many worried North Korea would resume with the summit canceled, said Jenny Town, managing editor of 38 North.
“They know that if they start resuming testing, all of that goodwill, all of that change in Kim’s reputation, all of that will go out the window very quickly,” she said. “So I think they’ve cleared gamed this out. They have the backup plan. They’ve repaired the relations they need to repair.”
Town also suggested North Korea may already be winning the public relations battle.
“I think the relatively mild language of the North Koreans at this point in time, it really also makes them look more reasonable and sort of outshines the Trump administration and sort of offsets the erratic and kind of, Trump’s letter, his sort of stream of consciousness letter to cancel the meeting,” she said. “It sort of read like his feelings got hurt in that process and that he wasn’t able to shoulder that. So, it makes them look like a more reliable world actor.”
— Updated at 11:43 a.m.