US President Donald Trump has cancelled what would have been a historic summit with North Korean President Kim Jong-Un. The summit was scheduled to take place on June 12th in Singapore. North Korean officials have stated that they are open to continue talks.
In 1945, when colonial Japan withdrew from the peninsula, Korea was divided into two halves along the 38th parallel. The relationship between the US and North Korea has always been fractious. During the war between North and South Korea in 1950, US forces successfully intervened on behalf of South Korea. Currently, 28,500 American soldiers are stationed in South Korea as part of United States Forces Korea (USFK). Read more on the history of the peninsula here.
The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. Talks to curb the programme in exchange for relief from sanctions have failed repeatedly. One example is the 1994 US-North Korean Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear program in return for proliferation-resistant nuclear power. The agreement collapsed in 2002. In March 2012, North Korea agreed to halt nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and enrichment activities, in return for food aid from the US. However, only a month later, Pyongyang violated the missile test moratorium agreement and the plan was scrapped.
In 2006, after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, the UN Security Council passed harsh economic sanctions on the region. In 2017, it conducted over 20 missile test launches, conducted its sixth nuclear test, and test launched at least 2 intercontinental ballistic missiles. US President Trump has taken an aggressive stance while countering North Korea. Both Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump were locked in an extended war of words in 2017.
However, since the beginning of 2018, Pyongyang has indicated that it is willing to re-establish diplomatic ties with the outside world. On April 27th, North and South Korean leaders Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In held a historic summit, the first in over a decade. The two nations announced that they have agreed to end the 60-year Korean War and signed the Panmunjom Declaration which agreed to denuclearise North Korea. Read more on the meeting here.
“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 addressed to “His Excellency” Kim Jong-un. In the letter, in which he cancelled the much-anticipated summit, Trump appeared to revert to his earlier rhetoric of “fire and the fury.” “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,” he wrote.
In recent weeks, North Korea has reverted to a more aggressive stance. In May, North Korea cancelled a meeting with South Korean officials after joint military drills between Seoul and Washington. North Korean vice foreign minister Kim Kye-Gwan reacted to comments by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who had said that the United States is looking at a 2004 “Libya model” to denuclearise North Korea. Kim Kye-Gwan said that Pyongyang would “no longer be interested” in dialogue if the US was trying to push for “unilateral nuclear abandonment.” At the time, President Trump was quick to assure Kim Jong-Un that he would have ample “protections” if he made the deal.
A senior US official told reporters that Pyongyang had “broken promises.” At a scheduled meeting between diplomats ahead of the summit, North Korean officials “didn’t show up.” Earlier this week, North Korea released a public statement threatening a "nuclear-to-nuclear showdown" and mocking Vice-President Mike Pence as a "political dummy".
In response to Trump’s letter Pyongyang said that it is still willing to talk “at any time in any form”. Kim Kye-gwan said Mr. Trump's decision was "extremely regrettable.” Hours before the announcement, Pyongyang reported that it had destroyed the tunnels at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The blast was also seen by foreign reporters. Some scientists believe that the test site has been unusable since last year.
South Korea, meanwhile, said that it was “perplexed.” "We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means," the Blue House spokesperson said. However, at a National Security Council meeting, President Moon Jae-In noted, "The current communication method won't be able to resolve a sensitive and complex diplomatic issue… I look forward to seeing two leaders making a direct and close communication to resolve the current situation.""
The sudden change in attitude from Kim Jong-un may have been a major cause for Trump’s decision. Earlier this week, the President made public comments insinuating that China may have had a hand in Kim’s attitude. Referring to a recent meeting between Kim and President Xi Jinping, Trump said, "I think things changed after that meeting and I can't say I'm happy about it."
Analysts have previously noted that rushing into this summit could be a mistake, given that both countries may currently have very different ideas of what “denuclearisation” means. To Pyongyang, this could mean mutual denuclearisation of the peninsula. The US, on the other hand, is pushing for North Korea’s "comprehensive, verifiable and irreversible" nuclear disarmament.
Others have noted that North Korea’s recent “charm offensive” starting with the Pyeong Chang Olympics, indicates a wider attempt to re-establish a working dialogue with the international community. Trump’s decision to cancel the talks could therefore in fact benefit North Korea. Euan Granham, from the Lowy Institute noted that Kim had “gained a lot of legitimacy and attention in the run up without having to give up any nuclear weapons.” Kim could now posture as the “injured party”, particularly given that North Korea has just dismantled its Punggye-ri test site.
Our assessment is that this summit may still take place at a later date. As stated previously, we feel that both leaders have vested interests in a meeting. However, Trump’s decision was not entirely unexpected. We believe that the move may have been a play to gain the upper hand. President Trump’s strategy is to be unpredictable. He may use this opportunity to go into future talks with more preparation and extract more demands from Pyongyang.
On the other hand, the President may also have escalated the risk of conflict in the region. We believe that South Korea will continue to push for talks to reach an agreement. China will also continue to play a role in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula.