SEOUL — President Trump credited his “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and threats with pushing North Korea to offer negotiations over its nuclear weapons program. Now, after abruptly calling off a summit with Kim Jong Un next month, Trump could feel the need to bolster his hard-line strategies.
There’s just one problem: “The multilateral pressure coalition has fallen apart,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, an East Asia expert at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
The United States had relied on Beijing to enforce international sanctions against North Korea, given that 90 percent of the isolated state’s trade goes to or through China. Now, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying Thursday that more sanctions are coming, China will be needed more than ever.
But in Asia, many hold Trump, not Kim, responsible for the sudden collapse of diplomacy and cancellation of the planned June 12 summit in Singapore.
From here, Kim looks like the more levelheaded leader who was trying to build confidence — releasing American detainees, blowing up a nuclear testing site — while Trump looks impetuous and unreliable.
“America’s national image has been damaged ever since Trump announced his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal,” the Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in an editorial Friday. “The cancellation of the Singapore meeting will only enhance its negative image, regardless of any explanation provided by Washington.”
Trump took a more upbeat tone later Friday after North Korea signaled willingness to hold talks to address the “grave hostilities” between the two countries. But the North gave no hint on what it planned to offer during possible dialogue, and Trump did not offer any clear idea of his next move.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters. He even raised the prospect that the June 12 summit could be salvaged.
Both sides have ricocheted in various directions over the past week.
On Thursday, Trump cited the “tremendous anger” coming from Pyongyang in recent statements as one of the reasons for canceling the Singapore meeting, a reason that surprised many analysts given that the statements were pretty standard North Korean invective.
But rather than try to save face by sharply criticizing Trump, the North Korean regime pivoted to claim the moral high ground, saying that Kim was still ready to meet “at any time” and expressing disappointment that its private hopes for the “Trump formula” had been dashed.
“The first meeting would not solve all, but solving even one [problem] at a time in a phased way would make the relations get better rather than making them get worse,” said Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, echoing the kind of approach espoused in Seoul and Beijing.
Analysts were surprised at the conciliatory approach, given that Kim Jong Un’s regime had been threatening to cancel the summit over the Trump administration’s repeated references to the “Libya model” of denuclearization. Some even said North Korea was practically begging for the summit to be rescheduled.
Both may be true. But it is clear that Pyongyang is trying to position Kim as good cop to Trump’s bad cop.
“All along, North Korea had this strategy of killing everyone with reasonableness,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department diplomat working on the Koreas. “They’ve never missed an opportunity to position themselves as the reasonable ones who are acting in good faith.”
The regime unilaterally declared that it would stop nuclear and missile tests and close its nuclear testing site, and Kim publicly authorized the release of three Americans held prisoner in North Korea.
From a tactical standpoint, the fact that it was Trump who canceled the summit could be seen as a win-win for North Korea, said Mark Fitzpatrick, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
“If the summit with Trump can be salvaged, they get the benefit of being treated as an equal with the superpower and a staged process of denuclearization,” he said. “And if it can’t be, the result is that a wedge has been driven between South Korea and the U.S.”
The cancellation caught the government in Seoul completely by surprise and embarrassed South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had been helping Trump prepare for the Singapore summit and met with Trump on Tuesday in the Oval Office.
Chung Dong-young, a previous unification minister in South Korea, said Trump’s sudden announcement was “an act of disrespect toward the president of an allied nation.”
“Trump owes Moon a proper explanation,” said Chung, who is now a lawmaker.
Driving a wedge between the allies was probably part of Kim’s plan. He had set up “a very smart and strategic fallback position,” Rapp-Hooper said.
“By acting like the adult in the room and by having these public interactions with South Korea and China, he has co-opted the other regional players,” she said, referring to Kim’s summit with Moon last month and his two meetings in China with President Xi Jinping. “They both now have stakes in this process continuing, while Trump looks like a mercurial, maximalist hard-liner.”
Moon’s administration said Friday that it will press ahead with the inter-Korean agreement signed last month, pledging to work toward a peace treaty with the North and looking for economic projects it can pursue without contravening sanctions.
China, meanwhile, has already lost much of its enthusiasm for enforcing sanctions. Prohibited North Korean seafood is abundant again in markets on the Chinese side of the border and North Korean workers are returning, Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review reported from the Chinese border city of Dandong this week.
This may make China, which values stability on the Korean Peninsula above all else, more likely to support North Korea, said Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington.
“It is highly likely that China will continue to soften enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, which will undermine U.S. efforts to sustain maximum pressure in the absence of substantial progress toward denuclearization,” he said.
After barely hiding his disdain for the young North Korean leader during his first five years in power, Xi has welcomed him to China twice since March.
It is in Xi’s interest for diplomacy to continue, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing.
“China now faces the possibility that the tense situation of last year will return,” he said, referring to the volleys of threats between Trump and Kim. “Whatever Trump does next, China is unlikely, or at least extremely reluctant, to sacrifice its newly improved relationship with North Korea.”
Rauhala reported from Beijing. Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Luna Ling, Yang Liu and Amber Ziye Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.