US President Donald Trump’s decision, conveyed in a personal letter to Kim Jong-un, to cancel the Singapore summit scheduled for 12 June is not unexpected. It will prompt relief and disappointment in equal measure, but the pessimists have been proved right.
The gulf of expectation and mistrust separating the US and North Korea, long apparent to seasoned observers, has become glaringly obvious in recent weeks. While the US has held out for complete, permanent, verifiable, irreversible decuclearisation, Pyongyang has clearly signalled that it has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear capability unilaterally.
The news will disappoint those hoping for a sea-change transformation in the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, perhaps even a formal termination of hostilities from the Korean War. Equally, however, the cancellation will relieve those more worried that Trump, shunning detailed briefing and overconfident in his deal-making acumen, would be outmanoeuvred at the table by Kim.
The summit “optics” were an independent cause for concern. The bare fact of an unprecedented meeting between a North Korean leader and a serving US president would have delivered a major legitimacy boost for Kim. A special coin produced by the White House to commemorate “peace talks” with “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un gives a flavour (the coins are still available, now at a discounted price). Pyongyang’s propaganda machine would surely have spun the Singapore summit as a meeting of nuclear peers – not the commitment to denuclearise that Trump had thought was on the cards.
As I explore in an Analysis published for the Lowy Institute this week, the thirst for legitimacy is a major behavioural driver for the North Korean regime, particularly in the comparison with South Korea, helping to explain its motivations for acquiring nuclear weapons. The analysis also explores how the North Korean playbook repeats in cycles of provocation, crisis, engagement, negotiation, and breakdown – and how this relates to an observable mirror-imaging dynamic between Trump and Kim.
While the gap between the US and North Korea on the definition of “denuclearisation” was glaringly wide, it was perhaps not unbridgeable for the purposes of a phased, or partial disarmament deal. What appears to have raised Pyongyang’s hackles was mention of the “Libya model” by Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence. This refers to Muammar Gaddafi’s decision to unilaterally give up his nuclear weapons blueprints early last decade, although in Trump’s ambiguous phrasing, it might equally have referred to the downfall and mob execution of the Libyan leader following Western military intervention, in 2011.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s professed scepticism about North Korea’s intentions to disarm and fondness for the Libya model are well known. It is tempting to read his influence behind the Trump administration’s recent references to Libya, as a ruse to nix the summit.
While the US–North Korea summit was always a high-risk gambit, the nature of Trump’s cancellation appears damaging in other ways. Calling off the meeting, just as North Korea held a stage-managed partial demolition of its nuclear test site in the presence of international media, will strengthen Pyongyang’s claim, however spurious, to be acting in good faith.
The most obvious collateral damage from the abrupt cancellation is to the US alliance with South Korea. President Moon Jae-in, recently returned from Washington, was apparently blindsided. Moon was quoted as being “baffled and very regretful” by Trump’s decision to cancel the summit, calling a midnight emergency meeting with his national security officials.
Moon now looks exposed, having done more than anyone to lay the groundwork for the summit, and more likely to blame Washington than Pyongyang for its cancellation. That makes it much less likely that Seoul will support a return to the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign, as Trump has indicated.
Washington faces an uphill struggle to enlist support from its Northeast Asian allies, but has a much steeper challenge persuading China. In the wake of the cancellation, Beijing is likely to pursue closer relations with Pyongyang, and to relax sanctions – as long as Pyongyang resists the temptation to express its pique with renewed long-range missile and tests.
US credibility has taken a significant hit, with broader impacts for Washington’s relationships in the region. Pyongyang and Beijing are the obvious winners.