Trump Withdraws from the North Korea Summit: Now What?

A coin intended to commemorate the North Korea deal
A newly released, ill-fated commemorative coin. Source:

Regularly, on the campaign trail, President Trump promised to disrupt Washington politics. In a rare move, it would seem he undersold himself. His snap decision to withdraw from the proposed June 2 summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea has birthed disruption on a global scale. Disruption, confusion, and shock.

The cancellation was classic Trump – equal parts muddled, brash, and careless. He hinted at it two days prior, enigmatically intoning that “we’ll see what happens”, and that there was “a very good chance” it would all come to nothing. And then, two hours ago, nothing was come to – arrived at thanks to an open letter by Mr Trump to Mr Kim, which declared that the meeting would be “inappropriate” thanks to North Korea’s displays of “tremendous anger… in [their] most recent statement” (said statement being a pointed rebuttal of Vice President Mike Pence’s invocation of “the Libya model”). A press conference followed, and more contradictions with it.

“A lot of things can happen”, assured Mr. Trump. “Including the fact that, perhaps, it’s possible the existing summit could take place, or a summit at some later date… Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right.” In the meantime, of course, there would be “very strong sanctions”, together with military chest-puffing – “we are more ready than we have ever been before”. The overall sentiment was this:
“This meeting couldn’t happen because North Korea has been rude. That naturally doesn’t rule out the possibility of future meetings, which would be lovely. Alternatively, of course, war is always an option. Cheerio!”

Three immediate and necessary questions are hereby raised:

  1. How did we get here?
  2. Whose fault is the withdrawal?
  3. Where do we go now?

Let us begin at the beginning.

How did we get here?
If any sort of peace process does emerge from this mess, the real hero will not be Donald Trump, but sport. Prospects of talks began with a New Year’s address by Kim Jong-Un, which floated the possibility of a North Korean delegation at the Seoul Winter Olympics. As much was agreed upon a week later at the first set of bilateral talks in three years. With Spring came a timely diplomatic thaw, and on March 6 Kim floated the possibility of denuclearisation talks with the United States. Two days later, President Trump agreed.

On March 27, Kim Jong Un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. We shall return to that date later. Next came two meetings between Mr Kim and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and, on April 20, the announcement that North Korea no longer wished (or needed) to carry out nuclear tests. All seemed set for a historic moment.

Then John Bolton happened. On April 29, the national security advisor appeared on Face the Nation and invoked “the Libya model” of total disarmament as the essential goal behind any negotiations. This infuriated North Korean officials, who recalled a different Libyan model – that being 2011’s “how to publicly kill a dictator, featuring sodomy-by-baton” – the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Furious diplomatic responses escalated tensions, particular when Vice President Pence made the same invocation, and was called a “political dummy” in reply. The next day, the meeting was off.

Who’s fault is the withdrawal?
At first glance, the blame would lie almost entirely with the President Trump. First glance is, of course, probably right in this case, but it’s worth examining the withdrawal in greater detail.

First, North Korea’s aggression. Mr Trump implied that the DPRK’s harsher tone was the result of coaxing by Chinese President Xi Jinping, following the aforementioned March 27 meeting. Obviously, it’s impossible to know for sure what was said between Messrs Xi and Kim, but persuasion of the kind Trump refers to seems unlikely.

Brian Wong, a Hong Kong native and Vice-President of Economists Without Borders – Oxford, finds it implausible that Mr Xi interfered. Firstly, they say, because the Chinese President wishes to minimise instability on China’s North-East, and secondly because he wished to pivot away from the Korean peninsula and on to greater affairs.

This sentiment is echoed by Dr Hyun Bang Shin of the LSE, who argues that the confrontational North Korean remarks don’t represent “anything new”, but rather a longstanding “geopolitical tactic” which should have been expected. He attributes them firstly to the repeated invocation of the Libya model, and secondly to North Korean angst over ongoing military drills in the South – drills which included F-22 fighter jets and very nearly included B-52 bombers. The latter were withdrawn after the North complained that they were “a provocation”.

Dr Shin described the Libyan allusion as “a great insult” to North Korea, whom he characterised as pursuing a Vietnam-style transition model, wherein the communist party maintained power whilst opening their nation up to the world. He believes that in comparison to this fracas and the tensions which sprung up from training exercises, President Trump’s theories about Xi Jinping have “low credibility”.

Where do we go now?
The summit’s cancellation is a blow to hopes for global nuclear deproliferation. Mr Trump’s flirtatious attitude to nuclear weapons is on display in his letter, where, in between passages of wistful regret, he reminds Mr Kim “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.” In his subsequent press conference, the President returned to the possibility of military intervention if necessary. Of such conflict, Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT, told Vox “Make no mistake, that would mean attacking a nuclear weapons power, and someone in the region or even in the United States may eat a nuke.”

When asked whether China may enter the game as a moderating force, Brian Wong deemed it unlikely. They said Mr Xi would “keep Kim ‘tame’”, but outlined that, as his goals regarding North Korea centred on maintaining a status quo of small skirmishes and low-level tension so as to encourage dependency on China, there was little incentive to pick up where America had left off.

Dr Shin is yet more uncertain about what lies next. When asked he admitted to still being “a bit shocked”, before opining that the strongest onus now lay on the shoulders of South Korean President Moon Jae-In. He had been a central mediator, and still enjoys the support of the South Korean people, who had rallied behind his commitment to signing a peace treaty with the North.

President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all repeated that a later summit remained on the table. But this ghost of a promise withers in the light of today’s events. The optimism of early 2018 has vanished from the table, and has been replaced by confusion and angst and bruised egos. The immediate fate of the Korean peninsula is uncertain. Its long term fate doubly so. Mr Trump closed his letter by remarking that “This missed opportunity is truly a sad moment in history.” Yes, Mr. President. So it would seem.


Read my article on what Donald Trump’s election meant in 2016 here.