Editor's note: This article originally appeared on the Niskanen Center site. Republished by permission.
In a surprise move on Thursday morning, the White House released a personal letter from the president canceling the upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. A number of questions arise from this decision. The two biggest questions right now, however, are where this leaves U.S.-North Korean relations, and where they might go from here.
The letter, clearly written by President Trump himself — or at least by someone masterfully aping his prose — suggests that North Korean rhetoric in recent weeks, as well as claims that it was the Trump administration, rather than the Kim regime, that sought talks, led to the cancellation. North Korean officials have been incensed in recent days by talk of a “Libya model” of nuclear disarmament, pushed both by national security adviser John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence. The Gadhafi regime in Libya famously gave up a nuclear weapons program that was far less advanced than North Korea’s, only to see Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi deposed and killed by NATO-backed rebels. That Bolton, a consistent advocate for regime change, suggested as much was not going to go unnoticed, and there was speculation that he was purposely trying to sabotage the talks.
Whatever the reason, it is probably for the best that the June 12 summit has been called off (at least for now). There is little evidence the president was prepared for the negotiations, and abundant evidence that the two sides were never on the same page with regard to what the summit was supposed to achieve. As analysts have been noting since the summit was first announced, the Trump administration and Kim regime maintained very different definitions of the word “denuclearization.” If the goal of the summit was — as American officials continually insisted — Pyongyang’s “complete verifiable irreversible disarmament,” then the talks were likely doomed to fail. Given the president’s mercurial nature and the lack of advanced work by American diplomats, the likelihood of failure was high. A failed summit might have increased the chances of war if it hardened both sides’ positions.
Though it might be better that the summit is off for now, the question remains what happens next. A number of people are suggesting that, by walking away, Trump has created leverage with North Korea, and the president’s letter leaves an opening for re-engagement at the end. This assumes, however, that the Kim regime is desperate for a deal. While that is possible, it seems unlikely. Even if Kim is that desperate, the process of re-engaging could lead to a dangerous new phase of bargaining.
Assuming that North Korea does badly want these talks, it will not want to be seen as a supplicant — that is, as crawling back to the table after the United States walked away. Such a situation would be problematic from a negotiating perspective and, more importantly, could damage the North Korean dictator’s standing at home. Instead, the regime will want to put itself back in a strong negotiating position. With the supposed demolition of the country’s nuclear test site, the most likely way to do that is by ending its pause on missile tests. President Trump, backed by his hawkish national security adviser, might resurrect his rhetoric about “fire and fury” in return — leading to spiraling hostility. The Kim regime could also detain some of the American reporters covering the planned demolition of the country’s nuclear test site as a bargaining chip — replacing the hostages it recently released in anticipation of the stillborn summit.
It is also possible, as is often the case in the U.S.-North Korean relations, that both sides continue to muddle through. As James Acton, an expert on nuclear weapons for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes on Twitter, if Pyongyang maintains its pause on nuclear and missile tests, the Trump administration might move on to deal with other issues on its agenda (of which it has many).
The best possible outcome, and also the least likely, is that the president’s gambit — assuming it is that — pays off, the Kim regime re-engages with the United States in a stronger negotiating position, and the standoff is settled peacefully and favorably for America and its allies. Far more dangerous is if this cancellation leads to a repeat of last year’s provocations, particularly now, with an advocate for attacking North Korea serving as national security advisor. The most likely outcome may be that both sides continue to muddle through in the same way they have for decades. Given the costs of another war on the Korean Peninsula, perhaps that is the best anybody could hope for.