After-effects reverberated across the region on Friday after news broke, late on Thursday night in Asia, that the highly anticipated summit in Singapore between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump had been called off by the US President.
There was bafflement and confusion in a humbled Seoul, a surprisingly measured response from Pyongyang, and likely a sense of opportunity in Beijing.
Why did the US pull the plug?
Cancellation of the summit by Trump appears to be a victory for hardliners in Washington.
There had been widespread fears in the United States that the president, who had invested massive political capital in what would have been the first-ever summit between North Korea and the US, would be “played” by the wily Kim. The underlying concern was that Pyongyang and Washington were too far apart on their basic positions for the negotiations to bear any fruit. There was also consternation at the tone of recent North Korean press statements, notably personal attacks on top US officials – John Bolton, the national security advisor, and Mike Pence, the vice president.
Moreover, North Korea had broken promises for working-level officials to meet in advance of the summit, a White House official told reporters in Washington, according to South Korea’s Yonhap newswire. “On Secretary Pompeo’s second trip to Pyongyang, North Korea promised that the two sides would meet in Singapore last week, to jointly work on the logistical preparations for the summit,” the official said. But a White House advance team “waited and waited and the North Koreans never showed up. The North Koreans didn’t tell us anything. They simply stood us up.”
The White House “leaks” began almost immediately after the surprise announcement.
Trump opted to cancel the summit partly out of fear that North Korea would beat him to the punch, according to NBC News, quoting multiple unnamed officials in Washington. Trump also sided with National Security Advisor John Bolton against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had laid the groundwork for the unprecedented summit by meeting with Kim at least twice in Pyongyang, NBC reported. (Sources have told Asia Times that Pompeo has made more than his two publicly announced trips to Pyongyang.)
Trump’s decision to cancel was taken so quickly that neither Congress nor key allies were informed in advance of the decision being made public, NBC reported.
South Korea humiliated, North Korea measured
Across the Pacific, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had just returned from a summit with Trump, in which the latter indicated he was still keen to attend the summit, making news of the cancellation doubly surprising.
But there had also been reports in US media that some US officials believed that the South Korean side, which had strongly championed the summit, had unrealistically talked up the opportunity for a deal and misrepresented Kim’s real views.
In terse post-midnight comments last night, the presidential Blue House revealed that Moon himself was “confused and saddened” by the news. But Moon urged the North Korean and US leaders to meet. “It may be difficult to resolve the sensitive and difficult diplomatic issues through such methods of communication currently being employed,” Moon said, according to local reports which quoted Blue House PR officials. “I hope [the countries] will resolve such issues through more direct and close dialogue between their leaders.”
South Korean officials today declined to say how news of the summit collapse was received by the Blue House – whether via diplomatic channels or news reports, noting only that the two countries had been “very closely working together on the Trump-Kim summit meeting.”
Looking at the media response the morning after, Oh Yong-jin, the online editor of the Korea Times daily, noted: “Moon may be humiliated and he appears weakened as he will have less ground to push reconciliation with North Korea, but it is too early to draw a conclusion.”
Whether Trump’s decision will turn Koreans, who are strongly behind Moon, whose popularity ratings remain at record highs one year into his term, and who had harbored significant expectations for the summit, against their ally is also too early to say.
“Anti-Americanism is one of the last things on my mind right now… but going back to Moon Jae-in, many Koreans had been proud of the possibility that we may have been able to place our fate into our own hands, so I think that credit for Moon will last,” Oh said.
Friday may well have been Moon’s worst day in office thus far. On the same day, the conservative opposition blocked his plans for a revision of the constitution.
Meanwhile, North Korea, according to CNN reporter Will Ripley, who is part of a media delegation currently in the country, found out about the cancellation not via diplomatic channels, but a report by his own outlet.
Even so, Pyongyang, which had unleashed scathing media commentaries about Bolton and Pence in the days leading up to the development, was measured in its response.
“We had set in high regards President Trump’s efforts, unprecedented by any other president, to create a historic North Korea-U.S. summit,” said Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye-kwan, North Korea’s long-time point man on nuclear talks, in a media statement picked up by Reuters and Yonhap. “We tell the United States once more that we are open to resolving problems at any time in any way.
“We remain unchanged in our goal and will to do everything we could [sic] for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and humankind, and we, broad-minded and open all the time, have the willingness to offer the U.S. side time and opportunity,” the statement added.
Despite the harsher rhetoric in state media in recent days, North Korea had made a range of goodwill gestures in the run-up to the summit, including freeing US hostages and blowing up parts of its nuclear site at Punggye-ri hours before Trump’s announcement.
New opportunities for China
China is likely to be outwardly displeased by the US move – it had supported the summit as a move to reduce tensions – but inwardly pleased, as it will offer Chinese President Xi Jinping further opportunities to increase its leverage over Kim, noted Lee Seong-hyun, a China and international relations analyst at Seoul’s Sejong Institute.
From personal contacts in China and from viewing Chinese media reports on Friday, Lee said there was a sense that Trump had cheated North Korea, which conducted explosions at Punggye-ri just hours before the US president announced that he was killing the summit. And given the regional strategic rivalry between China and the US –exacerbated of late by trade disputes – Trump’s cancellation of the summit may play into the hands of Beijing.
Lee noted that China had feared being “sidelined” soon after the North Korea-US summit had been announced, but, “…the current situation will drive Kim Jong-un further toward Xi for economic and security assistance, and China will definitely take advantage of this. When America backs down, China enters the game.”
Moreover, Trump’s summit withdrawal undercuts his own strategy against North Korea, Lee said. China is North Korea’s main trade and investment partner, making it critical to the effectiveness – or otherwise – of international sanctions. The ”maximum pressure” strategy Trump said he would continue to apply on North Korea would be effectively eroded without Chinese support.
“I think that goal is effectively off the table, immediately,” Lee said. “I think that given that it was Trump, not Kim, who pulled out, it gives the excuse for China to open the economic doors to North Korea.”
A high-level North Korean delegation had been touring Chinese industrial cities for 11 days, Lee noted.
Withdrawal ‘could help get a better deal’
There are fears that the situation could descend into the high military tensions of last year, particularly as Trump referenced the strength of the US military in a press conference yesterday.
But there also hopes that the two sides could conduct a better-prepared summit in the future – a possibility that both Trump, in his letter, and North Korea, in its statement today, suggested – and some wondered whether Trump, who sees himself as a master negotiator, was using a “walk away” tactic to improve his position in future interactions with North Korea.
Others expressed relief at the non-summit.
“I did not see the summit ending in a good way anyway – the Trump people with their [commemorative] coins and Nobel Prize nonsense, and the liberal progressives in South Korea thinking that things are really different this time, ‘we can work with Kim now’, that this was the magic key – I did not buy into that,” said Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “From the very beginning, this is not how these things work or are supposed to work…Trump’s impulsive, off-the-cuff management style – I don’t think it works in international relations.”
South Korea’s right wing has been in total disarray since the overthrow of impeached and now jailed ex-president Park Geun-hye. “The opposition is almost non-existent, and that is another factor that Moon may have a little more comfort in,” said Oh of the Korea Times. And while Moon’s humbling at the hands of Trump might provide a boost for conservatives, some members of South Korea’s right-wing suggested that Trump’s pullout, while a short-term negative, would be longer-term positive.
“I am glad it was killed off, as Donald Trump, I believe, was not prepared for the summit, and I believe he would have given too much to the North Koreans, and in the long run, this would have been much more dangerous for South Korea,” said John Lee, a conservative commentator. “So it is a North Korea victory for now, but in the long term I believe it will benefit South Korea much more than if it had gone ahead.”