President Donald Trump has pulled out of his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The two leaders were set to meet on June 12 to discuss a possible path to denuclearization for North Korea and perhaps even a peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula. But Trump announced in a letter on Thursday that it was “inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
So what happens now? Does this put Washington and Pyongyang on a path toward war, or is this merely the latest negotiating tactic from Trump? And does this decision increase the likelihood that North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear weapons program?
To answer these questions, I reached out to nine experts on US-North Korea relations.
Their responses, lightly edited for clarity, follow.
Laura Rosenberger, senior fellow and director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund
For Trump, this summit was never about real negotiations or diplomacy; it was always a show. But Kim has been choreographing every move in this dance, and it appears that when Trump saw signs that he might be left at the alter (as [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s statement indicates), he decided to pull the plug first.
But this false-start summit will have real costs: 1) Kim has succeeded in getting South Korea, China, and Russia to ease pressure on his regime, which they will not be inclined to resume as they will blame Trump for this failure; 2) Kim has succeeded in placing a wedge between the US and South Korea — and the apparent lack of advance notice to our ally of the summit’s cancellation will only inflame that rift (which both China and North Korea will exploit).
In the meantime, it’s not clear what the administration’s plan B is. But what’s clear is that Trump’s ego got us into this mess and is what’s driving this decision now.
Mieke Eoyang, vice president for the National Security Program at Third Way
It’s clear that the White House is avoiding an embarrassment for Trump, who was unprepared for this summit. But now that he’s been embarrassed, I’d expect him to revert to lashing out, putting us back on a path of escalation. We can already see it in his reference to our nuclear capabilities in his letter.
It’s a face-saving move for something that he was unprepared to agree to in the first place. He created this situation for himself by accepting too quickly. It’s also pretty clear that [National Security Adviser] John Bolton and [Vice President] Mike Pence threw sand in the gears on this by repeating the Libya analogy, which everyone knew would make the North Koreans crazy.
Jeffrey Lewis, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
Score one for John Bolton. His incessant trolling of the North Koreans by talking about the Libya model prompted the crisis that, at least for now, has derailed the summit. Bolton knew exactly what he was doing. The North Koreans had largely let the South Koreans do the talking until Bolton started yammering on about Libya.
It was too much for them to take. The North Koreans finally trotted out two senior officials — Kim Kye Gwan and Choe Son Hui. It was Choe’s comment that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She said that the United States had asked for the summit. That was too much for Trump, whose letter makes clear that he was under the impression the North had asked. He said it was irrelevant, but the prominent clarification said otherwise.
In the end, the process had been driven by Trump’s ego. But Kim has an ego too. And it seems Singapore isn’t big enough to fit them both.
Vipin Narang, professor of political science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The increased temperature over the past couple weeks made canceling the summit a real possibility ... but the fundamental problem is that the substantive gulf on what denuclearization meant was too wide to bridge.
There is a lot of progress that can be made short of immediate North Korean disarmament, but Trump insisted that Kim hand over the keys to his nuclear kingdom in Singapore, and that simply was not going to happen. So where does this leave us?
First, North Korea comes out as the big winner by baiting Trump into canceling the meeting and having broken maximum pressure with its outreach to China. Kim destroyed a nuclear test site hours before Trump canceled the meeting, allowing it to paint the United States as the intransigent party with constituencies that matter to Pyongyang: Beijing and Moscow.
Second, the biggest loser today is South Korea, whose efforts at mediating this, at times by massaging the messages on timing and denuclearization and, apparently, on who invited whom to the summit, have blown up spectacularly in its face. President Moon played a bad hand very well, but it was a high-risk, high-reward strategy, and it did not pay off. Moon’s relationship with Trump may be damaged, and that was perhaps one of Kim’s goals in this charm offensive: decoupling the alliance.
From here, perhaps working-level meetings can try to salvage diplomacy, and that would be the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that John Bolton’s view of the summit — to “foreshorten the amount of time that we’re going to waste in negotiations that will never produce the result we want, which is Kim giving up his nuclear program” — gains increasing purchase and attraction, and leads the administration to consider denuclearizing North Korea by force, especially if Kim starts testing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles again.
Make no mistake, that would mean attacking a nuclear weapons power, and someone in the region or even in the United States may eat a nuke. In both cases, the optimism following the Kim-Moon summit just several weeks ago has fully evaporated, and now the goal is to avoid a return to the high temperature of 2017, or worse, conflict between two nuclear weapons powers.
Jonathan Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
President Trump’s decision to cancel the meeting with Kim Jong Un is not a surprise. Trump agreed to the summit in an impulsive, ill-prepared fashion, and he must now pay the price for promising the moon and the sky when this was never in the cards. We are in essentially the same place before Trump agreed to meet with Kim. We can take modest satisfaction from the fact that Mike Pompeo (first as CIA director and then as secretary of state) has met face to face with Kim. But the coalition assembled to impede North Korea’s weapons development has been damaged, though it remains to be seen if the damage is irreparable.
I am not prepared at this point to hazard a guess on what comes next. But the Trump administration needs to avoid the all-too-easy temptation to blame Beijing or to fault Seoul. Trump needs to dispense with magical thinking and to grasp that there is no alternative to sustained, serious efforts to inhibit North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. This will neither be easy nor quick.
Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the US-Korea Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations
So far, North Korea has not been pulling out of the summit but has been voicing its dissatisfaction with the Libyan model, which it sees as unconditional surrender. The gap between the two sides showed that a June 12 summit was premature. There is a need for both sides to take the time necessary to close the gap between CVID (complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization) and the Libyan model.
This can be done through continued diplomatic communication with North Korea directly and via South Korea at lower levels in hopes of crafting a sustainable Trump-Kim summit agreement. This is an achievable course as long as North Korea does not return to provocations. The alternative course is to ramp up pressures and prepare to take on board the enormous risks and costs inevitably attached to forcibly achieving CVID.
Matthew Kroenig, professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
The desired US goal for negotiations with North Korea is rightly the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Un has made it clear through recent statements that he is not yet ready to dismantle his nuclear and missile program in a prompt manner. If there is not yet a deal to be had, then there is no reason to talk.
Now, we can expect a return to the “maximum pressure” campaign in an effort to put Pyongyang in a position so that it is more willing to discuss denuclearization in earnest.
Adam Mount, senior fellow and director, Defense Posture Project
We are now in the time frame when the administration has said North Korea will gain the ability to strike at the US homelands, so canceling the summit puts us perilously close to the brink of war. Expect to see North Korea make another play to prevent war, by turning back to Seoul, Beijing, or attempting to smooth things out with Trump. A war is even less appealing now than it was last year.
Chip Gregson, former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009-2011)
We are where we were before this started — North Korea will not give up its nuclear capability, or any of its other WMD capabilities. It’s well past time for us to realize that there is no quick and easy solution. This has to be managed, and we need to start placing a high priority on enhancing deterrence through improved ballistic and cruise missile defenses for our allies and friends.
Alex Ward contributed to this report.