The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The bad timing of Trump’s North Korea letter

A commemorative coin released by the White House for a potential “peace summit,” featuring the names and silhouettes of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg News)

On Thursday, Trump announced he has canceled a planned summit next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, where the two leaders had been set to discuss denuclearization, among other issues.

Only hours earlier, North Korea had taken foreign reporters to an event at which it had demolished its only known nuclear testing site, Punggye-ri, in what was intended as a gesture of goodwill ahead of the summit.

That these two events occurred on the same day may be an unfortunate coincidence. In his letter to Kim canceling the summit, Trump did not mention the demolition of the test site. Instead, he wrote of the “open hostility” in a recent statement by North Korea that had lashed out at Vice President Pence and called him a “political dummy.”

The Post's Adam Taylor explains what led up to President Trump's May 24 letter to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and what to expect going forward. (Video: Joyce Lee, Adam Taylor/The Washington Post)

Over recent weeks, there had been several signals that the two sides were not on the same page regarding the summit, with North Korea canceling a planned meeting with South Korean officials and repeatedly voicing disapproval at how the United States was portraying the talks.

But now, it may be that North Korea feels it made important concessions for a summit that was canceled before it even began. Pyongyang will be asking what exactly it got in return.

“North Korea is certainly at fault,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the left-leaning Sejong Institute in Seoul. “But the U.S. was also not delivering what North Korea was expecting in return.” Lee added Thursday's move made Trump look impulsive. “Some people think Kim got the moral higher ground,” he said. “Certainly no Nobel Prize for Trump.”

Kim may think he was tricked by Trump, Hu Xijin, editor of the Chinese state newspaper Global Times, wrote on Twitter. “Many people would think so too.”

North Korea had hoped that the closure of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site would be a high-profile media event broadcast around the world. It had invited foreign reporters to observe the demolition.

Experts had repeatedly suggested the closure of the site would be merely symbolic, with North Korea possibly able to reopen this or other sites in the future. There were also questions about whether Punggye-ri had been damaged by last year's Sept. 3 nuclear test, which is estimated to have been significantly more powerful than previous tests.

However, the foreign journalists are still in North Korea and heard the news while making a long journey to Punggye-ri. At least two of these journalists are U.S. citizens — CNN's Will Ripley and CBS News's Ben Tracy. Speaking after Trump announced his decision, Ripley said there was a “real sense of shock” when the news came in and that North Korean officials appeared dismayed.

“Being inside this country just hours after they've blown up their nuclear site and learning of this, it was a very awkward and uncomfortable moment,” he told CNN.

The demolition of Punggye-ri was not the only symbolic gesture toward the United States made by Kim this month. On May 9, North Korea released three Americans who had been held by the country for various alleged infractions. Although Trump had not made the release of the U.S. citizens a prerequisite for talks, he had expressed gratitude for the move.

“Frankly, nobody thought this was going to happen, and I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting after it was announced that the prisoners would be returning home with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had made a short visit to North Korea.

The Washington Post's Carol Morello was one of two journalists to travel with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to North Korea to rescue three Americans. (Video: Nicki DeMarco, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: Carol Morello/The Washington Post)

One U.S. official told The Washington Post that a North Korean official had made clear the decision was not something Pyongyang had taken lightly. “You should make care that they do not make the same mistakes again,” the North Korean official said, according to the U.S. official's recollection. “This was a hard decision.”

The United States had explicitly denied making any concessions in return to the North Koreans. “We have made zero concessions to Kim Jong Un to date and have no intentions of doing so,” Pompeo said Wednesday.

Many analysts disagree with that assessment, arguing that Pompeo's high-profile visits to Pyongyang and, indeed, the planned summit itself were concessions for an isolated country that has long craved international legitimacy.

But these concessions may have been too subtle for North Korea, which had clearly taken note of how U.S. officials were portraying the meeting in media appearances. Though the Trump administration may want to return to the “maximum pressure” strategy of isolating North Korea, it may find that key partners such as China and South Korea are less inclined to back it.

More on WorldViews

How Kim-Trump tensions escalated: The more the U.S. said ‘Libya,’ the angrier North Korea got