United States President Donald Trump informed Kim Jong-un late Thursday (Friday in Manila) he is canceling their nuclear summit next month in Singapore, blaming “anger” and “hostility” from the North Korean regime for the collapse of the historic event.
Trump and Kim had been due to hold high-stakes talks on June 12 aimed at ridding the reclusive state of nuclear weapons, but the meeting was recently thrown into doubt as both sides raised the prospect of scrapping the discussions and traded threats.
But several hours later, North Korea said it is willing to talk to the United States “at any time,” prompting China to urge both sides to show restraint as a pall of uncertainty settled over the turbulent Korean Peninsula once more.
The decision blindsided treaty ally South Korea, which until now had brokered a remarkable detente between Washington and Pyongyang.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in called the move “shocking and very regrettable” but his government vowed to push ahead with improving ties with the North.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the parties to keep talking, as did host Singapore, while Russia’s President Vladimir Putin held out hope that dialogue would resume and the talks would eventually take place.
The White House later said that a North Korean failure to keep its word had led US President Donald Trump to call off his summit with Kim Jong-un next month.
“There has been a trail of broken promises that gave the United States pause,” said a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Agence France-Presse.
Trump’s letter came a day after North Korea attacked US Vice President Mike Pence as “ignorant and stupid.”
“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,” Trump wrote in a letter to Kim released by the White House.
“Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.”
Trump also brandished the threat of America’s nuclear might in his letter, writing: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
The US leader’s letter appeared to leave the door open to a future meeting with Kim, however, stressing that he had been “very much looking forward to being there.”
“We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions” relative to the summit, he told Kim.
“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters,” Trump said. “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.
“The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.”
The decision came as North Korea said it had “completely” dismantled its nuclear test site, in a carefully choreographed move portrayed by the isolated regime as a goodwill gesture ahead of the Singapore summit.
China, Pyongyang’s sole major ally, urged the two foes to “show goodwill” as regional powers braced for the possible diplomatic fallout.
“Stay patient, show goodwill, move in the same direction and continue to stay committed to promoting the denuclearization of the peninsula,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press conference.
So far, Pyongyang’s reaction to the sudden U-turn has been conciliatory.
First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Trump’s decision “unexpected” and “regrettable.” But he left the door open for talks, saying officials were willing “to sit face-to-face at any time.”
However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe backed the US president’s move.
“I respect President Trump’s decision and support it,” Abe told reporters during a trip to Russia.
Politically, Trump had invested heavily in the success of the planned summit. But as the date drew nearer, the gulf in expectations between the two sides became apparent.
Washington has made it clear it wants to see the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the North.
But Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrent until it feels safe from what it terms US aggression.
A senior White House official said Pyongyang had demonstrated a “profound lack of good faith” in the runup to the summit—including standing up the White House’s deputy chief of staff, who had travelled to Singapore for preparatory talks.
The White House viewed North Korea’s objection to the latest US-South Korean joint military exercise—and its recent cancellation of a meeting with the South Koreans—as a breach of its commitments leading up to the summit.
It also was unhappy about the North’s failure to allow international observers to verify the dismantling of its Punggye-ri test site, the staging ground for all six of its nuclear tests which was buried inside a mountain near the border with China.
But the North’s Kim Kye Gwan countered that their angry statements were “just a backlash in response to harsh words from the US side that has been pushing for a unilateral denuclearization.”
Both Pence and Trump’s hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton had raised the spectre of Libyan leader Moamer Khadafi, who gave up atomic weapons only to die years later at the hands of US-backed rebels.
Experts warned that cancelling the meeting could have knock-on effects, especially among allies already rattled by Trump’s unpredictability.
“In a contest of who can be the most erratic leader, President Trump beats Kim Jong Un hands-down,” Joel Wit, founder of the respected 38 North website which monitors North Korea, wrote on Twitter.
“His unsteady hand has left everyone scratching their heads, including our ROK [South Korean] allies.”
But others said Trump’s willingness to walk away could extract further concessions from Pyongyang.
“North Korea will have to propose more detailed plans for denuclearisation if it wants to talk in the future,” Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Asan Institute of Policy Studies, told AFP.
Then, barely hours after the dust had settled at the Punggye-ri nuclear facility, Trump announced the summit was dead in a personal letter to Kim.
“The timing of this letter is… highly questionable,” said Abraham M Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.
“Coming just a few hours after NK demolished its nuclear test site, it guarantees that the US takes the blame for undermining diplomacy. NK comes out looking like the reasonable one.”
Such an overt display of levelheadedness leaves US demands for continued pressure on North Korea looking hollow, said Denmark—especially for one key regional player.
“China is likely to more openly back North Korea. Sanctions enforcement will soften, and I expect high-level contacts will continue,” he said.
And where Beijing had, until a few months ago, appeared almost ready to cast its troublesome younger brother to the wind, that looks a lot less likely now.
“If US returns to talk of [attacking North Korea], expect Beijing to be more explicit in its willingness to intervene.”
Pyongyang’s new-found moderatism has also won plaudits—and allies—south of its highly-fortified border.
North Korea’s willingness to keep the door open for talks gives Seoul the cover it needs to press ahead with engagement, said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at Asan Institute of Policy Studies.
“It won’t be like last year when South Korea and the US stressed their firm alliance and pressured North Korea,” he told AFP.
“Moon has to double down. In short, he will push ahead with the policy of engagement and focus on dialogue with the North. The South Korea-US alliance will be shaky.”
But, Go added, it isn’t all bad news for Trump.
Analysts have decried the pace of events over the last few months, pointing out that the diplomatically untested businessman-president appeared to have little understanding of the complexities of dealing with North Korea.
He and his hawkish administration talked of “denuclearizing the Korean peninsula” as a readily-navigated one-way street that simply involved North Korea mothballing its weapons.
Pyongyang’s understanding of the term has always been more nuanced and likely involves retaining some of its nuclear arsenals whilst pushing for a reduction of American troops in South Korea and weakening Washington’s alliance with Seoul.
Granting Kim a one-on-one before any concrete moves to scrap his nuclear arsenal was always akin to rushing downhill without looking, observers said.
Yet Trump’s equally sudden willingness to walk away from an agreement—a strategy he advocated in his “Art Of The Deal” memoir—might just help to level the playing field.
“North Korea will have to propose more detailed plans for denuclearisation if it wants to talk in the future,” said Go.