WASHINGTON (AP) — After inflating a bubble of expectation for a historic summit with North Korea, President Donald Trump popped it.
His withdrawal from a hastily arranged summit with Kim Jong Un drew strong criticism and some praise in Washington.
Trump opponents said he botched a delicate, diplomatic dance with North Korea, at the risk of fueling tensions, cold-shouldering allies like South Korea and making China less willing to put economic pressure on Pyongyang.
But some North Korea watchers said it was the right thing to do. Trump wasn’t convinced that Pyongyang was serious about giving up its nuclear weapons capabilities, they said, so the president was right to scrap the summit for now and keep testing Kim’s interest in substantive negotiations.
“I don’t think that this closes the door,” said Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general at the U.N. nuclear agency. “He is testing how willing Kim is. We have to remember why Kim comes to the meeting. The sanctions are biting. They have economic trouble there. I don’t think this is the end of the road.”
The big question now is how Kim reacts.
He was spurned on the very day North Korea demolished its nuclear test site in front of international journalists granted unprecedented access to the remote site, a concrete if not irreversible gesture toward denuclearization.
“They will feel betrayed,” said Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank. “There is a good chance North Korea will resume the missile testing that they have paused for six months,” starting with short-range systems.
But the North’s initial reaction was mild.
Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan said North Korea was still willing to sit down for talks with the U.S. “at any time, at any format.” In a statement carried by state media, he said Trump’s decision was “very regrettable” and showed how deep-rooted the hostility is between the U.S. and North Korea, and showed “how urgently a summit should be realized to improve ties.”
Trump’s letter to Kim, almost plaintive in tone, kept the door open to dialogue, but it also carried a threat evocative of last year when North Korea was honing its ability to target the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile. During those tense months, the president, annoyed by bellicose language from Pyongyang, was goading Kim about the size of his nuclear button.
On this occasion Trump wrote that he was praying to God the U.S. won’t need to use its “massive and powerful” nukes.
“I think, by and large, the president’s message was polite, although his reference to the U.S. nuclear arsenal looked a little threatening to me,” said Christopher Hill, the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea under the George W. Bush administration.
A flurry of characteristically combative statements from North Korea – branding Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy” and threatening nuclear confrontation with the U.S. – made plain that the North was not willing to relinquish its nukes in short order as key Trump advisers like national security adviser John Bolton were demanding.
Hill said Trump probably needed to nix the summit because “it suddenly dawned on him that North Korea was not ready to give up its nuclear weapons for nothing.”
That’s not really a surprise. Back in March, Trump shocked the world by suddenly agreeing to an unprecedented meeting with the North Korean leader, which was due to be held in Singapore on June 12. Although the chances of success were uncertain, the White House had even unveiled a commemorative coin with the profiles of Trump and Kim to herald the “peace talks.”
The president clearly relished the prospect of exercising his purported prowess as a negotiator to bring home the daddy of all deals that would alleviate the North Korea nuclear threat and formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
That was always going to be a long shot.
He can point to some progress made, including the release this month of three American detainees by North Korea as a goodwill gesture. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had rare and direct contact with Kim, opening the door to top-level engagement.
But Trump is now open to criticism his administration had failed to lay the groundwork for such a high-stakes meeting with a bitter American adversary.
“In hastily agreeing to a summit and then being the one to walk away, President Trump must understand he has now weakened and further isolated the United States,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Trump is now left with a difficult diplomatic path forward in sustaining the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign to get North Korea to give up its nukes.
China, North Korea’s main trading partner, is going to laud the nuclear test site demolition and could be inclined to ease enforcement of economic sanctions, Acton said, noting reports that North Korean trade with China had restarted already.
“North Korea has done enough for now to placate China and China is going to throw it an economic lifeline,” he said.
It could also hurt U.S. relations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was in the Oval Office just this week. Moon has invested a lot of political capital in improving relations with North Korea, although Pyongyang just broke off a high-level meeting with Seoul over U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Moon was instrumental in the genesis of the U.S.-North Korea summit, yet his government appeared to be caught unawares by Trump’s sudden decision to cancel – a worrying sign of diplomatic disconnect between close allies.
“We are trying to figure out what President Trump’s intention is,” presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said, according to Yonhap news agency.