A news report on the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is broadcast in Seoul on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
A news report on the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site is broadcast in Seoul on Thursday. Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji

In a shock, last-minute move, US President Donald Trump canceled his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

The summit, which would have been the first-ever meeting between a North Korean and a US head of state, had won plaudits from those who believed it offered the chance of a breakthrough in long-tense relations between the two countries. However, many experts had been concerned that neither party would play by the book, and the summit’s failure could generate even higher tensions. Some Korea watchers had even predicted it would never take place.

In a letter addressed to Kim and released by the White House, Trump wrote, “We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions relative to a summit long sought.” It continued, “[…] based on the anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”

The cancellation followed aggressive communications by North Korean state media, attacking US National Security Advisor John Bolton and US Vice President Mike Pence. Both had talked up the “Libyan model” of denuclearization, a model North Korea angrily refuted, given the chaotic and gory fate of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Trump added, in his letter: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never be used.”

Still, there were some conciliatory notes from the US president. “I felt a wonderful dialog was building up between you and me […] some day I look forward to meeting you.” Trump finished, “This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.”

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Photo: The White House

In a televised press statement made after the release of the letter, Trump said that if Kim “chooses to engage in dialog […] I am waiting […] In the meantime, our sanctions and maximum pressure campaign will continue.” Trump also referred pointedly to US power, saying, “Our military has been greatly enhanced, and will soon be at a level it has never been at before.”  At the same time, he said, “It is possible this summit could take place at a later date.”

Crafty timing?

Trump’s letter thanked North Korea for the release of three US prisoners whom Pyongyang had transferred into the custody of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a goodwill gesture. The US’ top diplomat had been engaged in shuttle diplomacy in the run-up to the summit, traveling twice in the span of several weeks to meet with Kim in Pyongyang.

The letter appeared just hours after North Korea had dismantled its underground nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, in another pre-summit goodwill gesture by Kim. International journalists had been invited to watch that event, and are expected to file stories imminently, once they have returned from Punggye-ri, in the country’s rugged northeast, and are in range of satellite and Internet communications.

Trump’s decision almost certainly took some in the administration by surprise: Earlier on the same day, US officials had started to accept media credentials from journalists planning to cover the Singapore summit.

Yet there had been concerns in Washington that Trump was over-eager and unprepared for the summit. US news reports had stated that Trump may have over-estimated, or been misled, about Kim’s commitment to denuclearization; even Vice President Pence had warned North Korea not to “play” him.

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A blow to US credibility?

Coming so soon after the US pullout from the Iranian nuclear deal – a move that has irked European capitals and even drawn approbation from such customarily reticent allies as Japan – the cancellation of the summit may deal a blow to US credibility globally.

Regionally, it will likely draw the ire of both Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“This is an intentional insult to China, North Korea and South Korea and a whole bunch of people who have worked hard on this,” said Emanuel Pastreich, the Seoul-based president of the Asia Institute. “In diplomatic terms, they call this ‘f**k you!’”

The move appears to over-extend the US strategic footprint. “I am a little bit shocked, as strategically I would have thought Trump’s people, after going after Iran and Russia, would have tried to keep it cool in Asia,” Pastreich added. He noted that the move came the same day the administration had disinvited China from participating in Pacific naval exercises.

Blow to the South Korea-US alliance

The action is a particularly low blow to Trump’s South Korean ally, Moon. According to the presidential Blue House, Moon had called an emergency meeting of ministers at 11.30pm, including those whose portfolios cover Defense, Foreign Affairs and Unification.

Moon was “confused and saddened” that the summit would not take place, according to a statement released by the Blue House after 1pm.

The South Korean president has enthusiastically engaged North Korea in the last five months, championed the summit, and earlier this week flew into Washington on what had widely been acknowledged as a mission to fortify Trump’s intention to meet Kim in Singapore. Moon’s National Security Advisor, Chung Eui-yong, had even said, prior to the Moon-Trump meeting, that the likelihood of the summit taking place was “99.9%.”

In a TV press briefing on the sidelines of his meeting with Moon, Trump had been in a conciliatory mood, dangling carrots before North Korea, saying that the United States would guarantee North Korea’s security and proffer a brighter economic future.

“This is going to be a shock to the South Korean government, as it came just after Trump and Moon had met,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute. “It is going to impact the relationship between the US and South Korea, while North Korea will take the moral high ground.”

Both analysts feared the impact on the Seoul-Washington alliance.

“It is going to create a lot of discontent in South Korea as a lot of South Koreans supported the idea of the summit, and there will be a lot of backlash against the idea of the strong pressure and tensions of last year,” said Go.

“I think you are going to see serious discussion, a considerable number of people here who are going to think US presence here is a liability,” added Pastreich. “And I am not talking about hyped-up students, but serious thinkers.”