President Trump’s decision Thursday to cancel his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un came as suddenly and unexpectedly as his decision to agree to the summit in the first place. But the abrupt move didn’t simply return the situation to where things stood before Trump agreed to meet with Kim with no plan or preparation.
Instead, North Korea is significantly better off than it was before Trump agreed on a whim to a summit that had him hoping for a Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, the United States’ moves have alienated key allies and eased the pressure Trump had been trying to put on Kim — and Trump and his aides don’t appear to have a backup plan, either. And Kim looks like the magnanimous party after North Korea issued a statement responding to Trump’s letter offering to continue talks, with the U.S. portrayed as the one spurning diplomacy.
Thanks to Trump’s hasty maneuvers since March, Kim has established himself as a world leader. He has met twice with Chinese President Xi Jinping — doing so on Kim’s terms, finally accepting an invitation that China had repeatedly extended only when he could go to the table in a strong position. He traveled to South Korea to meet with President Moon Jae-in, holding hands and laughing beside South Korea’s leader in imagery beamed around the world. He met twice with Mike Pompeo, first as CIA director and then as secretary of state — a feat a North Korean leader had only once previously realized, when his father met with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright more than 25 years ago. And Kim got international media to flock to North Korea for a propaganda event of destroying his already defunct nuclear test site (thereby destroying evidence for any future inspectors). These moves not only gave Kim the international legitimacy he has long sought but also strengthened his grip internally, as he was able to use this legitimacy in slick propaganda to his domestic audience.
Kim also has succeeded in ending Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. This campaign always relied primarily on our international partners tightening the screws on the North, since the United States has few economic ties with Pyongyang. Amid Trump’s declarations that peace was about to break out on the Korean Peninsula — tweeting triumphantly “KOREAN WAR TO END!” — China has eased its enforcement of sanctions and trade restrictions; Kim’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Dalian, China, was a clear nod to the economic dimensions of their relationship. And the Panmunjom Declaration after the inter-Korean summit spelled out economic cooperation and joint development projects that the North would earn as part of the diplomatic process. Turning the pressure back on at this point is unlikely, particularly with Beijing and Seoul likely to blame the cancellation on Trump, not Kim.
Which means Pyongyang has advanced its goal of driving a wedge between Washington and Seoul. The manner in which Trump pulled out of the summit — just two days after Moon’s visit to Washington to discuss summit preparations and apparently without advance notice to or coordination with the South — only increases that gulf. “Decoupling” has long been a goal of Pyongyang, and Trump’s latest move has done Kim’s work for him. Moon’s approval ratings have skyrocketed over his diplomacy with the North, and domestic pressure will make it difficult for him to do anything other than proceed on this track. Moon agreed at the inter-Korean summit to visit Pyongyang this fall, and there will be pressure for him to follow through. So even as the United States signals that it is walking away from diplomacy, South Korea is unlikely to do the same.
Pyongyang is sure to exploit this fissure — as its initial response already shows. Beijing, which some say was worried about being left out of a U.S.-North Korea negotiation, will also benefit from space between the United States and South Korea, which has long sought to balance relations between its ally and its large neighbor. With the United States now likely seen as the bad guy in Seoul, Beijing will welcome Seoul, happily serving as a guarantor of, and party to, a diplomatic process.
Ironically, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was making progress: China had gone further than it ever previously had in cutting off support for Pyongyang, and the strategy could have had meaningful results in shifting Kim’s calculus had Trump not abandoned it impulsively. But now that’s over. And other than destroying his nuclear test site, which was likely already unusable, Kim has done nothing to advance denuclearization. Instead, he’s underscored his commitment to his nuclear program — and is effectively being treated as an all-but-declared nuclear power, something Trump’s cancellation letter even reinforced. The release this month of three American hostages held by Pyongyang was an unmitigated good, but precedent indicates this could have been achieved without legitimizing Kim through a meeting or agreeing to a summit.
Trump, once again, does not appear to have a plan for what comes next. That’s no surprise: He didn’t appear to have a plan to prepare for the summit when he agreed to it; nor did he appear to have a plan for what comes next with Iran when he announced the United States would abandon a nuclear agreement with that nation.
A return to the saber-rattling, march-to-conflict footing that we saw before the summit would be dangerous. But returning to a smart “maximum pressure” approach is now virtually impossible — undone by Trump’s naive and incompetent handling of Kim’s diplomatic entreaties.
Diplomacy with North Korea was never going to be easy, though Trump seems to have naively thought it would be. Unfortunately, he never approached this as a serious negotiating process in a way that would manage the inevitable expectation gaps and predictable Pyongyang temper tantrums. Any effective policy toward North Korea requires strong coordination with our allies and partners — something Trump’s ham-handed approach has directly undermined. Trump’s decisions will allow Kim to continue to dictate this dance. And it is the United States, not North Korea, that now looks isolated.
If completely avoidable, self-inflicted diplomatic setbacks are worthy of a Nobel, then Trump may still deserve one. But no one who hopes for denuclearization — let alone eventual reunification and peace on the Korean Peninsula — should be pleased with the developments here.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the relationship between Kim Jong Un and the previous North Korean leader who met with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. That was Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, not his grandfather, Kim Il Sung.