Trump's decision to pull out of the planned June 12 summit in Singapore was a move, like so much of his presidency, cloaked in drama and confusion. The White House issued a letter addressed to North Korea's "Dear Chairman" Kim Jong Un informing Pyongyang that the summit — "for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world" — was off.
The seeming incoherence between those consecutive clauses was followed by other bewildering statements in the letter, which was apparently dictated word-for-word by Trump to an aide. It included a schoolyard plug for America's "so massive and powerful" nuclear arsenal, followed by praise for North Korea's "beautiful gesture" in releasing American hostages and an incongruous suggestion to a sitting of head to state to "not hesitate to call me or write" should he change his mind.
The reasons for the cancellation are still filtering out, but there are two very different ways to interpret the White House's decision. The first view, as a Washington Post editorial argued, is that it's yet another instance of Trump's impulsive instincts. It was his choice to prematurely announce the planned summit — to the surprise of his South Korean interlocutors — and then wildly play up its prospects even though experts doubted Kim would ever surrender his nuclear weapons and puzzled over Trump's apparent lack of strategic foresight. The president seemed busy speculating that his diplomatic gambit could win him the Nobel Peace Prize; his administration even minted a collector's item coin commemorating the meeting of the two leaders.
But a flurry of hostile statements from North Korea this week, and growing fears within the White House that the meeting in Singapore would not see any genuine progress toward North Korean "denuclearization," started to shift Trump's calculus.
"White House aides had grown concerned because North Korea had not responded to planning requests on the summit and had canceled a logistics meeting," my colleagues reported. "Many details needed to be settled within days for the summit to happen, this official said, adding that the White House did not want an embarrassing situation of 'losing the upper hand.' "
Critics would question what upper hand the United States has at this point. Trump's decision blindsided the South Korean government, which has staked a great deal of its credibility on successfully working toward rapprochement with the North. "We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means," said government spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom in Seoul. President Moon Jae-in said he was "very perplexed and sorry" over the turn of events.
So, too, are observers in Washington. "Never has such chaos attended the public behavior of a U.S. president on a matter of such gravity," The Post editorial said. "Both Mr. Trump and the North Koreans alluded to the possibility of nuclear war."
The second view is that the summit was bound to fail. A key figure here is Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, a noted hawk and skeptic of diplomacy with the North Koreans. For weeks ahead of the meeting, Bolton set impossible targets for the summit and posited a scenario where Pyonygang swiftly dismantled its nuclear program in the same vein as the Libyan regime of despot Moammar Gaddafi in 2003.
"Bolton appeared to be willing to settle for nothing other than Kim showing up to Singapore to turn over the keys to his nuclear program — which North Korea has recently taken to calling its 'treasured sword' — to the United States," said Asia geopolitics expert Ankit Panda. "Bolton’s preferred model all this time has been the 2003 disarmament of Libya, which at the time had a nuclear-weapons program that was effectively in a primordial state and was dismantled by the United States."
Of course, as we discussed before, the "Libyan model" is an unwelcome analogy in Pyongyang, given how that story ended with the overthrow of the nuclear-free Gaddafi regime in 2011 and the brutal killing of its leader. "There are several land mines on the way to the summit between North Korea and the U.S.,” Chung Dong-young, a liberal South Korean politician, told my colleague Anna Fifield last week. “One of those land mines just exploded: John Bolton."
Nevertheless, in the days that followed, both Trump and Vice President Pence invoked Libya in their remarks, with Trump explicitly (and rather confusingly) warning Kim that Gaddafi's fate could be his should he not denuclearize. The intellectual "dysfunction within this administration in the lead-up to this meeting ultimately brought the summit crashing down," Panda concluded.
So what did Trump gain from the gambit? For a president invested in the "art" of the deal, he rather theatrically got to walk away from one, while still securing the release of U.S. prisoners and leaving the door vaguely ajar for a future round of talks with Kim. (North Korea said it was willing to meet with Trump "at any time.")
But he also opened the door for more chaos. Trump now has to patch up ties with South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Japan, two allies that will undoubtedly be wary of Trump's future initiatives in the region. "Leaving [the Iranian] nuclear deal created a wedge w European allies," tweeted Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser at the State Department. "Leaving NK summit will draw a wedge with S Korea."
And it likely plays into the hands of China, which has also been outmaneuvering Trump in a long-rumbling trade dispute.
Meanwhile, Trump undermined his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who, starting while he was CIA director, made two secret trips to North Korea and shifted his initially hard-line stance to one championing engagement. "Pompeo could lose credibility, not just with Kim, but with any world leader who now can’t be sure he speaks for the president," wrote my colleague Josh Rogin. "Pompeo himself must now pivot from his optimistic rhetoric about bringing North Korea into the 21st century and toe the more hawkish, Bolton line of pushing more sanctions all the time."
What that means is a return to the old status quo, albeit one where the United States has less leverage. The absence of the summit may deprive Kim of a new platform to boost his international visibility and legitimacy, but he still has his nuclear weapons and has emerged in the past few months as a more emboldened figure, ending more than half a decade of seclusion with two trips to China. Trump's stated campaign of "maximum pressure" on North Korea has weakened.
“Trump walking away from the summit lets North Korea meet all its objectives: public recognition, lighter sanctions, damage to U.S. alliances and continued nuclear advancement,” Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, told the New York Times.
What happens next is anyone's guess. A humbled Trump administration could pursue more moderate goals, such as an agreement from Pyongyang not to carry out further missile or nuclear tests. But Trump could just as easily go back to his saber-rattling bluster of the previous year, while Kim resumes missile launches — returning the focus once more to the grim prospect of war.
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