U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel the historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month in Singapore was, oddly, no great surprise. The entire process, beginning with Trump’s initial agreement to meet with Kim, appears to have been guided by impulse, with little of the systematic assessment and strategizing that typically dominates such moments. Japan must work with the United States to prevent a return to the antagonism that marked U.S.-North Korea relations prior to Kim’s opening to the West earlier this year, as well as to keep together the coalition that is maintaining “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.
There were many signs that the June 12 summit was in trouble. North Korea had become increasingly critical of U.S. demands for denuclearization and was attacking U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence by name because of their support for the “Libyan model” — that country gave up its nuclear program in 2003 in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions but less than a decade later leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed by rebel forces. Trump promised that Kim would stay in power and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added that the U.S. would “work with North Korea to achieve prosperity on the par with our South Korean friends.”
Those assurances were not enough for the North. Pyongyang continued its invective and did not send officials to summit planning meetings. This prompted Trump to decide that the risks of failure — or seeming weak by appearing to want the summit too much — were too great. In a letter to Kim, Trump said he would not tolerate the “tremendous anger and open hostility” directed at the U.S. by North Korea and reminded the North Korean leader of a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is “so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” He left the door open to the resumption of dialogue, however, noting that he “very much looks forward to meeting” Kim and invited him to call or write any time.
North Korea responded with restraint. First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Trump’s decision “regrettable” but said his country is willing “to sit face to face at any time.”
Tokyo expressed understanding of Trump’s decision. What matters is not whether the summit is going to be held, but whether there will be progress on the problems of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and its abductions of Japanese nationals, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.
Three critical questions hang over these developments. First, what did North Korea say to South Korean interlocutors when they met in March and what message did those envoys convey to Trump when they later met him in the White House? Did Pyongyang actually promise to give up its nuclear arsenal? Or did South Korean officials massage the message to make it more inviting to Trump?
Second, what has Chinese President Xi Jinping counseled Kim during their two meetings? Did Xi press Kim to denuclearize, or did he offer more tactical advice about how to manage and negotiate with Trump? The U.S. is increasingly suspicious of Chinese intentions, noting that the North has hardened its position since those meetings.
Third, and most significantly, what does North Korea mean by “denuclearization”? Is Pyongyang ready to give up its nuclear weapons or does it instead seek recognition of its nuclear status and will only hand that over in the context of global nuclear disarmament? This last question is the most crucial to North Korea’s relations with the world and the answer seems clear: The North has insisted that its nuclear arsenal is nonnegotiable, with senior officials rejecting the U.S. call for “abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterwards.”
Northeast Asia must now brace for a return to the antagonism that marked U.S.-North Korea relations last year. Bolton has long favored a hard-line approach to the North and there are fears that Pyongyang’s strident tone will reinforce Trump’s inclination to act tough in return. In a mildly veiled warning, Trump said he had consulted with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and noted that “we are more ready than we have ever been before.” All nations in the region will be harmed as tensions rise.
In the meantime, the U.S. has promised to maintain the “maximum pressure” campaign that helped bring North Korea to the table. Pompeo said the U.S. will continue to work with allies to increase sanctions, including intercepting ship-to-ship transfers and shipments of petroleum. Government officials in Tokyo said Japan will continue to play its part in keeping pressure on North Korea. That policy will only work, however, if the coalition enforcing sanctions is broad. Maintaining the coalition will be difficult if the governments in Beijing and Seoul, which seek to engage Pyongyang, believe that the breakdown in talks and the loss of diplomatic momentum are Washington’s fault, a view encouraged by Trump’s impulsiveness.