Donald Trump believed he had scored a foreign-policy triumph: After engaging in a Twitter war with Kim Jong-un, the U.S. President crowed that he was on the verge of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal when he agreed to a summit with the dictator.
Mr. Trump mused that he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The White House gift shop even struck a commemorative coin, showing profiles of Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim gazing at one another.
But on Thursday, Mr. Trump cancelled the meeting as abruptly as he had scheduled it – dashing hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough and raising the prospect of nuclear war. In a strangely personal letter, the President mournfully blamed Mr. Kim for spoiling the chance at peace.
“Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” Mr. Trump wrote. “You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
The about-face was precipitated by an escalating war of words between Mr. Trump’s administration and Mr. Kim’s: National security adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence both compared Mr. Kim to former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up a nuclear-weapons program in 2004, then was later overthrown and executed by rebels.
In response, North Korean deputy foreign minister Choe Son-hui called Mr. Pence “ignorant and stupid.”
A senior White House official said Thursday that North Korea had also made it logistically difficult to organize the summit, which was scheduled for June 12 in Singapore: North Korean officials scheduled a planning meeting in Singapore last weekend, but failed to show up. Then, Pyongyang did not respond to Washington’s messages for days on end.
The larger problem, analysts said, was that Mr. Trump’s uninformed and disruptive style came crashing up against the realities of nuclear diplomacy.
After months of taunting Mr. Kim as “Little Rocket Man” on Twitter and threatening to rain down “fire and fury” on Pyongyang, the President agreed to the summit on the spot during an impromptu White House sit-down with South Korean officials in March, without setting any preconditions or clarifying with North Korea what exactly would be negotiated.
Mr. Trump appeared to believe he could cut a quick deal that would involve North Korea getting rid of its nuclear weapons in exchange for more trade opportunities. But North Korea has always wanted any denuclearization to take place over the long term in phases, and would also likely demand the United States no longer guarantee nuclear protection of Japan and South Korea, and withdraw its troops from the peninsula.
“This was a story of mismanaged expectations, particularly mismanaged U.S. expectations,” said Andrea Berger, an expert on North Korea’s weapons program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “There was an inflated hope here for a grand bargain.”
Charles Armstrong, a Columbia University history professor who has written six books on Korea, said Mr. Trump may have decided to back out when he realized landing a deal would be much harder than he had made it sound.
“He might have been trying to avoid embarrassment after saying North Korea would denuclearize and he would get the Nobel Peace Prize,” Prof. Armstrong said.
The consequences for Mr. Kim, meanwhile, are mixed: While he can blame the summit’s failure on the United States, it is also a setback for the dictator who hoped to be the first of his country’s leaders to get a sitting American president to sit down with him.
Where, exactly, the most serious threat to international security will go from here is uncertain. In his letter to Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump said he was still open to the idea of meeting – “please do not hesitate to call me or write,” he told the dictator. But at an unrelated White House bill signing, the President cautioned that he was also prepared to fight Mr. Kim.
“Our military – which is by far the most powerful anywhere in the world and has been greatly enhanced recently, as you all know – is ready if necessary,” he said, in case North Korea took any “foolish or reckless acts.”
Pyongyang’s initial response, however, was relatively tame. In a statement Kim Kye-gwan, another deputy foreign minister, said the President’s cancellation was contrary to “the world’s desire” and said a summit was necessary.
“Leader Kim Jong-un had focused every effort on his meeting with President Trump,” the statement said.
Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the rhetorical sparring in the days leading up to Mr. Trump’s letter could actually set the stage for a longer negotiation by establishing the countries’ opening positions. Mr. Trump and Ms. Choe’s statements, he said, mirror each other: They both leave the door open to co-operation – and put the ball in the other country’s court.
“We don’t know what North Korea is willing to do on denuclearization, and it’s very doubtful that we’ll initially find out from a North Korean press release,” he said. “That is an argument for having a meeting. The only way to find out what their bottom line is, is to talk it over in private at a very high level.”