U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday canceled a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing the DPRK’s “tremendous anger and open hostility.”
The landmark talks were scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore and would have been the first time a sitting U.S. President sat down to negotiate with a North Korean leader.
While Trump also offered a fig leaf to Pyongyang, saying that talks could still go ahead on June 12 or even at a later date, the U.S. president simultaneously adopted a tough stance, later telling reporters that U.S. military remained “ready.”
Originally, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in told Washington that North Korea was willing to discuss denuclearization, while U.S. Secretary of State also said Kim understood the Trump administration’s objectives.
But the forward momentum began to stall on May 15, when North Korea announced it was canceling high-level talks with its southern neighbor and threatened to withdraw from the summit with Washington.
The cancellation seems to reset relations between the DPRK and United States, and will no doubt have implications for Washington’s relationship with Seoul and inter-Korean rapprochement.
Several experts spoke to NK News to share their reactions to Trump’s announcement and provide insight on what the cancellation will mean for future U.S. diplomacy with the DPRK and inter-Korean relations.
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
- Anthony Ruggiero, Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies
- Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy Arms Control Association
- Lisa Collins, Fellow, Korea Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
- Naoko Aoki, Research Associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM)
- Stephan Haggard, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program at IR/PS
1. What was your initial reaction to Donald Trump’s letter and the cancellation of the Singapore summit?
Anthony Ruggiero: President Trump made the right decision, it was clear that North Korea was playing games and not serious about denuclearization.
The reports that North Korea did not show up for a previously scheduled meeting and cut off all communications is inexcusable.
Kim Jong Un was not ready to denuclearize, the main goal of the summit.
Kelsey Davenport: Trump overreacted to North Korean rhetoric and failed to acknowledge the role members of his own cabinet played in instigating the crisis. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s mention of the “Libya model,” which implies full dismantlement before any concessions, and Vice President Pence’s comments threatening war if a deal is not reached, were bound to provoke a negative response in Pyongyang.
Given those provocative statements, the Trump administration should have expected North Korea to engage in similar hostile posturing. Canceling the summit was an unnecessary escalation.
There were risks to proceeding with the summit. Trump’s expectations were overblown and there was a real chance that he would accept a partial or weak deal, sell it as a victory, and give up critical leverage for cosmetic commitments from North Korea. So more time to adequately prepare and manage expectations could have been useful.
But by canceling the summit in the manner in which he did, Trump created a far riskier situation than proceeding with the meeting. His provocative letter puts in jeopardy future talks, risks a return to the tit-for-tat escalation that characterized 2017, and puts a greater strain on the US-ROK alliance.
Lisa Collins: The timing may have been surprising but I don’t think the fact that Trump canceled the meeting with Kim Jong Un was a surprise to many Korea experts. President Trump has been threatening for weeks to walk away from the summit negotiations if he felt that North Korea was not serious about the process of denuclearization.
Even though the June 12 meeting has been cancelled, I don’t think this necessarily means the complete end of negotiations with North Korea.
It depends on how North Koreans react to this cancellation – there may still be back channel communications that continue between the two countries which could lead to another scheduled summit in the future.
Pulling out of the summit shortly after North Korea blew up the tunnels at its nuclear test site sends the wrong signal to North Korea and exposes the United States to criticism that Washington is the irresponsible party.
President Trump’s letter cites anger and hostility displayed by North Korea as the reason for pulling out. Is the United States canceling an important summit that could denuclearize North Korea because it said mean things? I am also worried that there is no sign that dialogue between the two countries will continue at a lower level.
Stephan Haggard: The short timeline to the summit always posed some risk that it might not transpire.
But the recent comments by Vice President Pence on Fox News clearly represented major mixed messaging: on the Libyan model, on the use of force and on the sequencing of concessions.
Again, the Trump administration is at odds with itself.
2. Trump seemed to leave the door open to future negotiations, do you believe that Kim Jong Un is likely to pursue a summit at a later date?
Anthony Ruggiero: This is not about the summit, the question is has Kim made a strategic decision to denuclearize?
If so, then the sides could try and narrow the wide gap in sequencing. If not, then the Trump administration should return to and intensify maximum pressure.
Kim’s actions the last week show he has not made the strategic decision to denuclearize.
Kelsey Davenport: Not anytime soon. The manner of Trump’s refusal, with his juvenile boasting about the superiority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, was condescending and provocative.
Trump also canceled the summit shortly after North Korea blew up its nuclear test tunnels. Between the tone of the letter and North Korea’s decision to take a concrete step to dismantle its test facility, Trump is giving Kim Jong Un the opportunity to paint the United States as the intransigent party that is unwilling to talk.
Additionally, Trump’s own lose talk about decimating North Korea if Kim Jong Un does not agree to a deal only plays into Pyongyang’s conviction that its nuclear arsenal is necessary for regime survival and that the United States expects capitulation, not negotiation.
Lisa Collins: It is difficult to say at this point what Kim Jong Un will do. However, if the North Koreans are serious about dealing with the United States and about dismantling their nuclear weapons program hopefully they will realize the need to react in a rational way and to continue with negotiations.
If North Korea does respond in a measured way there may be a chance to return to dialogue with the United States. President Trump did leave the door open to future dialogue with the North Koreans. It will be up to them to decide how to react to this unexpected move.
Kim Jong Un has built a stronger relationship with China and Russia. The U.S. cancellation puts South Korea in a difficult position.
He also does not have to take denuclearization steps dictated by the United States.
Stephan Haggard: Both sides seem intent on coming to a meeting; President Trump’s letter is almost fawning.
I suspect this will ultimately move forward, but probably not on June 12.
3. Mike Pompeo reiterated today that the maximum pressure campaign will continue going forward. Do you believe that the U.S. will have the support of regional actors such as China and Russia after this move or will the cancellation of the summit create further divergence?
Anthony Ruggiero: The Trump administration should tell China that it cannot reduce its implementation of North Korea sanctions, and if it does that Beijing’s companies, individuals, and banks will feel the consequences.
Russia has not been implementing sanctions and they should be coerced into compliance with sanctions on Russian banks, companies, and individuals.
Kelsey Davenport: Trump’s decision to cancel the North Korea summit and continue the “maximum pressure” strategy is not happening in a vacuum. Trump just violated the nuclear deal with Iran – an agreement that enjoys broad international support including from China and Russia – and reimposed sanctions on that country.
Active resistance to the Iran sanctions, as well as the confusion over how the sanctions will be enforced, invites evasion and poor implementation more broadly.
It also feeds into sanctions fatigue and the perception that U.S. secondary sanctions infringe on sovereignty. In sum, these actions undermine sanctions as a tool of U.S. statecraft and makes it more difficult to continue the “maximum pressure” approach to North Korea.
Additionally, time and time again, Trump has changed the goal posts for international negotiations and pulled out of agreements without a viable “plan b.” Specifically to North Korea, it raises the risk of divergence with China and Russia, both of which supported the summit and negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program. These countries might also relax sanctions on North Korea because they no longer view the U.S. pressure approach as credible.
Lisa Collins: I think the sudden cancellation of the summit without notifying South Korea, Japan, or China could certainly make it harder to continue enforcing sanctions to the same degree as in the past. However, as President Trump said, the U.S. plans to continue with the maximum pressure campaign, and the U.S. allies may decide it is in their best interests to support that campaign. However, China could be a completely different story.
The Chinese may be less willing to go along with sanctions enforcement if they perceive the U.S. as the “bad faith actor” in the negotiations and if U.S.-China relations continue to sour.
The Russians have already expressed dissatisfaction with the cancellation of the summit and are likely to diverge even further with the U.S. position in the future.
The United States announced it was pulling out of the summit without giving convincing reasons why it was doing so.
There is little sign that Washington consulted with other major players, including its ally, South Korea. This is not a good way to make major players see things your way.
Stephan Haggard: In the short-run nothing is likely to change, but China has been quiet.
If the U.S. reverses course and really walks away from engagement, China will almost certainly push back.
4. What does this mean for Washington’s relationship with Seoul?
Anthony Ruggiero: South Korea should have seen this coming, North Korea was up to its old tricks.
Washington should work with Seoul to respond to North Korea’s likely provocations.
Kelsey Davenport: Trump dealt another blow to U.S. credibility and reliability as an ally. It is apparent that South Korea was not consulted in advance of Trump’s decision to cancel the summit or given much warning before the letter was made public.
It is inexcusable to treat a close ally with such cavalier disregard, particularly when President Moon traveled to Washington the day before the summit was canceled and assured Trump that Kim Jong Un was sincere about the meeting.
And this is just the latest in a long line of comments and actions by Trump that have slighted South Korean officials and risk slowly eroding the alliance.
Trump’s move also makes it more difficult for Moon to pursue dialogue with North Korea. Without U.S. support, there is less South Korea can put on the table as part of the inter-Korean dialogue because of sanctions limitations.
Lisa Collins: I am sure the Moon Jae-in administration will keep pushing for negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. The failure to notify South Korea of the cancellation of the summit before it was announced is not good for alliance management. However, the South Koreans will try to salvage what they can and encourage both sides to return to dialogue.
Naoko Aoki: I think this will strain Washington’s relationship with Seoul.
Even if there were consultations between the two before the cancellation announcement, which is unclear, this move clearly alienates South Korea, which may carry out its own diplomacy with North Korea.
Stephan Haggard: I think they will probably request the cancellation of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. which I am sure would include a request for a peace treaty or peace agreement.
5. What does this mean for inter-Korean relations?
Anthony Ruggiero: North Korea’s interest in a peace treaty is part of its long-term plan to reunify the Korean peninsula under Kim family rule.
If Moon proceeds with inter-Korean talks he will weaken South Korea and strengthen Pyongyang.
Kelsey Davenport: It is hard to say. Initial comments from the Blue House suggest that South Korea opposes the decision to cancel the summit and is trying to distance itself from Trump’s comments. This is not surprising given that South Korea’s diplomatic work helped pave the way for the summit.
But, if North Korea’s response to Trump sparks an escalatory spiral that includes actions like missile tests, it could be increasingly difficult for South Korea to distance itself from Washington.
If North Korea wants to continue driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea, continuing the inter-Korean dialogue would be a strategic move. That could result in decoupling the peace process from denuclearization.
Lisa Collins: I think the South Koreans will continue to try and mediate between North Korean and the U.S. Moon Jae-in’s government will not want a return to heightened tensions and talk about military strikes on North Korea. Depending on how conditions unfold in the next few weeks, inter-Korean relations could rapidly deteriorate again or there could be some effort to proceed with promises made in Panmunjeom Declaration while things are on hold in the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
Naoko Aoki: South Korea is in a difficult position. I expect Seoul to continue with diplomacy with North Korea, but what it can do alone is limited.
For denuclearization to take place, the United States needs to be involved.
Stephan Haggard: I suspect the Moon administration will continue to move ahead cautiously, but it will probably not do anything dramatic until the dust around the summit settles.
Featured Image: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore on 2017-02-24 08:39:17