Hours after North Korea invited international media to witness the closure of its Punggye-Ri nuclear test site, President Donald Trump abruptly cancel ed a diplomatic summit with Kim Jong Un that experts warned was a trap but which Trump portrayed as a transformative opportunity for peace.
Former officials and experts experienced with North Korea and northeast Asian diplomacy warned that the U.S. was now in a far worse geopolitical position—and that the pivotal nations of China and South Korea would blame Trump for the collapse of the summit. The dynamic that North Korea established in February, when it led a charm offensive at the Winter Olympics and portrayed itself as the driver of international events, is likely to prove far more durable than any summit, they said.
“We’re not just going to revert back to the way things were ahead of the Olympics,” said Abraham Denmark, the Pentagon’s senior Asia policy official during the Obama administration.
“North Korea’s international stature has grown significantly. Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy is far greater than it was before. The U.S. is increasingly seen as the outlier in the region, not engaged.”
Jim Walsh, an international-security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Trump’s reversals from a summit he seemed enthusiastic about holding would reverberate beyond the region.
“This president cancels the Iran agreement, agrees to a summit and then cancels that,” Walsh said. “If you’re a world leader thinking about whether you want to do business with this guy, you’re gonna be gun-shy, thinking he’ll reverse himself and leave you hanging.”
Since the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un’s international prestige has swelled, despite leading an internationally isolated prison state primarily known for its bellicosity. China’s Xi Jinping has met with Kim twice since the Olympics, both times with Kim traveling to China. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in has staked his domestic and international reputation on reaching a rapprochement with Pyongyang—even traveling to Washington to meet with Trump two days ago. Both are likely to blame Trump for abandoning the summit.
But in canceling the summit, Trump placed the blame on Kim, through a personal letter released by the White House Thursday morning.
The cancellation stemmed from “the tremendous anger and open hostility” North Korea has recently displayed, Trump wrote to Kim. The president left the door open to a resumption of diplomacy over the fate of North Korea’s nuclear program, but placed the onus on North Korea. He even added a threat that echoed his infamous “fire and fury” warning: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used.”
It might be a negotiation tactic, Walsh speculated. “Perhaps Trump is thinking… ‘I’ll cancel, Kim’s gonna come running back to me, the Chinese are gonna come running back to me and I don’t care about the South Koreans,’” Walsh said. “It’s a possibility, but he’s playing with fire—fire and fury.”
To Denmark, North Korea’s positions have been remarkably consistent from before the Trump administration until now. North Korea sought international prestige and sanctions relief through suggesting a willingness for some measure of denuclearization short of a unilateral disarmament—and denuclearization that implies the U.S. would pull back its military from its treaty-backed defense of South Korea. North Korean state media on Thursday suggested that it would denuclearize when the rest of the world did, “join[ing] hands with the world peace-loving people in building a nuclear-free peaceful world.” In other words, the Tuesday after never.
Trump seemed to believe that the Pyongyang initiative was the sui generis result of his “maximum pressure” sanctions policy, and that the Kim regime had been brought to its knees. John Bolton, his new national security adviser—already hated by Pyongyang—infuriated the North by suggesting that, like Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Un’s disarmament was a prelude to his violent death. Trump tamped down talk of a “Libya model” for Pyongyang, only to have Vice President Mike Pence intensify it Monday, prompting a blustery volley of insults from the North Koreans.
“They wanted a deal, but couldn’t maintain message discipline for a few weeks,” said Denmark. “Anyone who knows North Korea or has been paying attention should never have expected North Korea to denuclearize in the way the Trump administration was talking about it.”
Trump and his allies raised expectations for the summit to astronomical proportions. The administration even minted a challenge coin for the summit with what it called “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong Un. On the Trump favorite morning show Fox & Friends yesterday, a once-rumored choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, Pete Hegseth, sycophantically said Kim “probably doesn’t love being the guy who has to murder his people all day long.”
The proximity between the Punggye-Ri destruction and Trump’s summit cancellation would likely strengthen North Korea’s hand with Beijing and Seoul and weaken Washington’s, Denmark said. Moon now looks to be rebuked by Trump after Tuesday’s meeting between the allies at the White House.
“Politics on the [Korean] peninsula have changed. China is more firmly in North Korea’s corner. South Korea invested tremendous capital in engaging North Korea,” Denmark said.
If there is a Plan B for Trump’s North Korea policy, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo—who has met with Kim—did not indicate it Thursday.
Just minutes after the White House released the president’s letter to Kim, Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the U.S. was no longer in a “position to believe that there [would be] a successful outcome” to the June 12 summit.
Pompeo also said the North Koreans were not responsive to U.S. outreach efforts to prepare for the summit. He insisted the U.S. side was “fully engaged over the past weeks to prepare for this meeting.”
“I regret the statements that the North Koreans have made over the past few days, and the fact that we have not been able to conduct the preparation between our two teams that would be necessary to have a successful summit,” Pompeo said.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, scrapping the summit was panned as a missed opportunity.
“You cannot have thin skin if you want to make progress with a difficult adversary such as the Kim regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on the House floor. “To make matters worse, the president’s bizarre letter returns to the same bellicose rhetoric that last year heightened tensions and raised the specter of war. Any type of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula would come with horrific consequences.”
Yet an unsuccessful summit carried real risks as well. “The worst-case scenario is that we have a real negotiation, it goes badly, both sides storm back to their corners angry and confused,” Walsh said. “Trump says, ‘Well, I tried diplomacy and it didn’t work, so I have no choice but to go with the Bloody Nose’”—a preventive military attack on a nuclear power that has the world’s densest concentration of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul.
Trump’s letter also indicated that whatever Pompeo says is irrelevant. “I felt a wonderful dialogue building between you and me, and ultimately, it is the only dialogue that matters,” Trump wrote Kim.
To Denmark, it was another indication of North Korea’s diplomatic triumph. Trump’s letter “signals that he sees this not as a negotiation between nations, but a negotiation between him and Kim Jong Un,” Denmark said. “By doing so, he’s granting a tremendous amount of international legitimacy to Kim Jong Un, who’s got the same status as the president.”
—Andrew Desiderio contributed reporting