Political News

Trump's canceled North Korea summit: Art of the deal or no deal?

Posted May 24, 2018 5:19 p.m. EDT
Updated May 25, 2018 8:59 a.m. EDT

President Donald Trump canceled a historic US-North Korea summit set for June 12, 2018.

— After President Donald Trump canceled a historic US-North Korea summit set for June 12, the administration said it would resume its maximum pressure campaign, signaled new sanctions are likely and expressed hope another meeting can be scheduled.

But the chances of a quickly rescheduled summit going ahead seem slim, analysts said, pointing to a range of factors from the looming US midterm elections to the threats that Trump doled out alongside invitations to another meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Trump's move could be a classic "Art of the Deal" maneuver meant to help him gain leverage over Kim, but Pyongyang watchers said axing the summit might end up hurting the US more than it helps.

"This isn't a New York real estate deal," said Joel Wit, a co-founder of 38 North, an authoritative site devoted to information and analysis on North Korea. "These are the North Koreans." Speaking of Trump, he said, "I suspect he thinks he's operating from a position of strength. He's sadly mistaken. We're not."

This is just the beginning of what will likely be a long and drawn-out negotiation, and canceling the meeting now is likely less dangerous than Trump attending a summit that fails, many analysts said. But they caution that the White House might be wrong to assume it can successfully maintain and even step up its maximum pressure campaign against Kim's regime.

North Korea has taken steps to protect itself from sanctions, and the sudden summit cancellation could alienate international partners the US needs for a pressure campaign to succeed. The White House told South Korea and Japan the summit was off only after the news was made public, US officials said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, said the administration canceled the meeting because "we had received no response to our inquiries from them" over the past few days.

There is still "a lot of discussion going on ... about how to exactly proceed," he said, adding that in meetings with Trump and others, "we did talk about what the path forward would look like," from talks to preparations for a return to "where we were six or eight or 12 weeks ago," when Trump and Kim were trading threats of force.

Role of hawks in White House

It's a situation some in the White House might prefer. National security adviser John Bolton has written publicly about his preference for a strike on North Korea.

Scott Seaman and Cliff Kupchan, the Asia director and chairman of the Eurasia Group, write that they "think the hawks in Trump's administration, Bolton in particular, likely saw the recent flare up in negative rhetoric (which Bolton contributed to) on both sides as an opportunity to convince Trump that he needed to take a tougher stance" and cancel the summit.

Trump coupled his statements about still being willing to meet Kim with thinly veiled threats about the US' "massive and powerful" nuclear capabilities and observations that the US military was "ready if necessary."

The President's allusion to force, said Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, "only invites a provocative response from North Korea and risks a return to the tit-for-tat escalation of 2017."

If that tit-for-tat begins to happen, Seaman and Kupchan say, it's unlikely another summit will be arranged. For one thing, Kim isn't likely to respond to threats. But they also note that escalating rhetoric would make it hard to reschedule the summit before Labor Day in the US, when election campaigns pick up speed.

"The larger US midterms loom on the horizon, the harder it will be for Trump to risk holding a summit with Kim that might not turn out as successfully as he hopes and challenges his ability to spin a bad outcome into a 'win' that appeals to his base," Seaman and Kupchan wrote.

In the meantime, Pompeo told lawmakers that "in some ways, it's situation normal" and that "the pressure campaign continues." That effort includes targeting energy exports to North Korea, the use of the country's workers overseas and ship-to-ship transfers of goods bound for the country.

But Wit is among many who said that "it's not going to be possible to reconstitute maximum pressure" in the wake of the summit cancellation.

"We seem to be operating in a bubble where we think there's no consequences to our actions because we're the United States," he said. "That's not the case."

"What we're going to find is a lot of unhappiness in China and Russia and most importantly in South Korea," he added. "All the key players are going to look to how to salvage this process and not salvage it through maximum pressure and supporting US sanctions."

North Korea 'had a plan B'

North Korea has recently renewed warmer ties to China, with Kim and China's President Xi Jinping meeting for the first time.

"North Koreans aren't stupid. They had a plan B" should the summit fall through, Wit said. "A lot of what they were doing is putting that contingency plan into place."

Russia, along with China, has in the past resisted US attempts to increase pressure on North Korea, and Moscow reacted quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed "regret" about the cancellation.

"Kim Jong Un on his part did everything he promised to do, even blew up some tunnels on their sites and after this we hear the US canceling the meeting," Putin said.

After holding a late-night emergency meeting in response to the summit news, South Korea issued a rebuke about the announcement, saying that "it is difficult to solve sensitive and difficult diplomatic problems with the current way of communication."

Seoul and Pyongyang held a historic summit just weeks ago, with unprecedented footage of their leaders talking, walking and crossing the border that divides their countries.

The risk analysis firm Stratfor concluded that "if North Korea plays its cards carefully and refrains from conducting high-profile weapons tests or launches, China, Russia and South Korea will be more likely to sustain their diplomatic outreach," which includes economic incentives for continuing toward denuclearization.

The optics of the cancellation might also work against the US as it tries to mobilize international support for more sanctions. North Korea has made some very public goodwill gestures, inviting foreign journalists to witness the dismantling of some nuclear infrastructure and releasing three US prisoners.

North Korea pressed that advantage in its response to Trump's cancellation. Kim Kye Gwan, the first vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, released a statement saying North Korea is still willing to "sit face to face" with the US "at any time and in any way."

"I would like to conclude that President Trump's statement on the NK-US summit is a decision that is not in line with the wishes of (those) who hope for the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula as well as the world," Kim said, according to state media KCNA.

"Now that North Korea has clearly demonstrated that it can be cooperative and come to the table, this US cancellation makes North Korea's argument that it is acting in good faith more plausible," Stratfor said.

That might make it hard to get the United Nations on board for more maximum pressure, Stratfor analysts said, "after Trump has walked away from the summit when North Korea has made all these shows of good faith."