Will Trump and Kim eventually meet after Singapore summit is canceled?

A copy of the letter sent to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un from President Donald Trump canceling their planned summit in Singapore is photographed in Washington, Thursday, May 24, 2018. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

President Donald Trump said Thursday the U.S. military is “more ready than we have ever been before” for a confrontation with North Korea after he backed out of what would have been a historic meeting with leader Kim Jong Un, but he also did not foreclose prospects for a future diplomatic resolution to the international standoff over Kim’s nuclear weapons program.

“Though many things can happen and a great opportunity lies ahead potentially, I believe this is a tremendous setback for North Korea and indeed for the world,” Trump said at a bill-signing event.

Hours earlier, the White House released a letter being sent from the president to Kim declaring that the June 12 summit in Singapore is no longer appropriate due to “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.”

In a statement earlier Thursday, Choe Son Hui, a vice minister in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, blasted Vice President Mike Pence as “a political dummy” and threatened a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” Choe’s insults were a response to Pence suggesting that if Kim does not accept a deal, “this will end like the Libya model ended.”

Pence’s comment echoed recent statements by National Security Adviser John Bolton about following the “Libya model” that also angered Pyongyang. Less than a decade after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi agreed to shut down his nuclear program, his government was toppled with the help of NATO-backed forces and he was killed, so it is not an example Kim aspires to emulate.

According to Choe, North Korea has built up its military power specifically “in order not to follow in Libya’s footsteps.” Her statement and Trump’s letter signaled a possible return to the rhetorical brinksmanship that he and Kim engaged in earlier this year.

“You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used,” Trump wrote Thursday.

The letter is far from the last word on a possible summit, and Trump’s later comments hinted that the meeting could still occur as planned.

“Hopefully, everything is going to work out well with North Korea,” he said. “And a lot of things can happen, including the fact that, perhaps -- and would wait -- it's possible that the existing summit could take place or a summit at some later date. Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right.”

Experts on North Korea and nuclear nonproliferation were uncertain what Trump’s cancellation of the summit would mean for future diplomatic efforts, but for the moment, the face-to-face meeting does appear to be on hold.

“I think the letter did leave open a potential future summit,” said James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “It certainly didn’t close all negotiations.”

That said, he acknowledged it is hard to get inside the president’s head on this.

“It’s also possible it’s a complete reversal of Trump’s policy and he’s not interested at all in talking to the North Koreans,” he said.

Rodger Baker, senior vice president of strategic analysis at global intelligence firm Stratfor, pointed to the invitations to continue dialogue in both Trump’s letter and his public statement.

“I really don’t think it’s the end,” he said. “Both of these sides have a very strong incentive to ultimately go through with a summit.”

Baker observed a pattern in the Trump administration’s negotiations over many issues of staking out extreme positions and then walking them back. That may be happening again.

“There’s always these maximalist moments,” he said, though the stakes are much higher now. “He’s dealing with the potential for nuclear war rather than a minor trade spat over automobiles.”

Similarly, North Korea has a habit of delaying meetings and making rude statements to gain an edge in diplomatic talks. If calling Pence a “dummy” and threatening nuclear war really was Trump’s breaking point, as his letter suggested, the path forward is not promising.

“If the Trump administration is going to call off summits because of the North Koreans using belligerent language, there’s never going to be a summit,” McKeon said.

CNN reported Wednesday the Trump administration was seeking additional meetings between North Korean leaders and top U.S. officials to figure out exactly what Kim’s intentions were. According to former Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, the fact that such preparation was not done before the date was set may have doomed the summit from the start.

“It’s dead,” said Cavanaugh, now a professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. “It was clear going in the groundwork hadn’t been laid to know they were all on the same page.”

Some North Korean officials first learned of Trump’s letter from reporters who were traveling with them after witnessing the apparent demolition of a nuclear test site earlier Thursday. The destruction of several tunnels at the Punggye-ri site had been proffered as a goodwill gesture to demonstrate Kim’s commitment to denuclearization.

“It was a gesture that kind of is lost in the shuffle of diatribes from one side or the other, and now the letter canceling it out,” Cavanaugh said.

McKeon noted that North Korea did not allow any independent experts to attend the demolition, making it impossible to verify that the site’s capabilities were wiped out, but it appears to be a positive development.

“It’s always a good thing if they’re destroying tunnels that go to their nuclear test sites,” he said.

Baker questioned the significance of closing an underground site the North Koreans were likely nearly done using anyway. Future tests would probably have been atmospheric and aimed at demonstrating the ability to detonate a weapon on a missile.

“On the other hand, it’s a very concrete, physical step that they took before the summit,” he added.

It also offers Pyongyang an opportunity to portray Trump as the unreasonable and untrustworthy party.

“They’re going to play off of this sense that they did all the right things and it’s the U.S. that abandoned everything,” Baker predicted.

If the alternative was further buildup toward a summit that might collapse over conflicting goals and differing definitions of denuclearization, pulling the plug now might have been best for all parties.

“People aren’t prepared for that dialogue one-on-one at the negotiating table,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s why diplomacy is so important. It takes time and expertise to work these things out before the leaders meet face-to-face.”

After the summit was announced, Cavanaugh worried about what happens next if Trump and Kim meet and walk away angry and empty-handed. It may have been difficult to deescalate through lower level talks at that point.

“Since it didn’t fall apart at the negotiating table, there’s potential to have [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo reengage,” he said.

Baker argued that even a meeting between Trump and Kim that only resulted in vague commitments could be valuable as a starting point for diplomats to hammer out the technical details.

“The lower level negotiations are important, but they can only be successful if you have this higher level framework from the leaders,” he said.

The cancellation of the summit might damage Trump’s relationship with key allies who have so far helped enforce his maximum pressure campaign.

"We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means," a South Korean spokesperson told the Washington Post after the letter was released Thursday.

“It weakens the alliances that we have and it only plays to strengthen the North Koreans,” McKeon said.

Baker warned international support for sanctions could slip, especially if the U.S. is seen as being responsible for talks collapsing.

“It doesn’t mean sanctions disappear, but it does mean the ability of the U.S. to get international consensus behind it wane,” he said.

Trump’s handling of diplomacy with North Korea had recently been welcomed by many as a genuine opportunity for progress.

“No president, from President Clinton to President Bush to President Obama, has ever been able to get to the stage we’re at right now,” Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., told KHQA Wednesday. “I give President Trump and Secretary Pompeo a lot of credit.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who was among 18 Republicans who recently nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korea work, said in an interview with WEAR Wednesday the summit might not happen if Kim is not ready to denuclearize.

“I know President Trump won’t get into a bad deal and he won’t sit down at the table with Kim Jong Un if the only consequence is going to be a win for North Korea and not a win for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and throughout the world,” Gaetz said.

News of the cancellation reverberated immediately through Washington. Democrats promptly seized upon Thursday’s announcement as evidence that Trump is out of his depth in nuclear diplomacy, while some Republicans hailed it as a show of strength and an example of the president’s strategic unpredictability.

“Sadly, we weren’t even across the 50-yard line on this summit and you were practicing your end zone dance,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., tweeted in response to Trump’s announcement.

“President Trump has made the right decision to cancel the summit with Kim Jong Un until North Korea is ready to act in good faith to fully denuclearize,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Co., said in a statement.

Polls had indicated growing public support for Trump meeting with Kim and his approach to North Korea in general. According to Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American studies at Cornell University, Trump’s letter to Kim seemed crafted to reinforce a positive spin on the situation.

“It was an important political calculation for President Trump to be the person to withdraw and it’s also important to note that, as he did so, he called attention to the release of the three Americans detained by the North Koreans,” he said. “This permits him to argue that his initial decision to accept the invitation, which some regarded as precipitous was actually a gain for the U.S. because, without making any concessions, he got those three individuals released.”

Trump can also now point to the closing of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site as another concession he drew from Kim at no cost to the U.S.

“My reading of the Trump presidency is it puts a premium on immediate political gain, and in extricating himself from a summit that almost certainly was going to fail, he may have garnered some short-term political gain,” Altschuler said.

All of this, of course, assumes the summit stays canceled. With almost three weeks until the ordained meeting date, nobody can rule out Trump changing his mind again.

“Both of these administrations right now, they like to play off of a sense of unpredictability,” Baker said. “That means, despite the fact everybody is saying the thing is off, it could just as easily be on. We have to be careful to say that, because this letter was sent, it’s over It’s an intentional pattern of uncertainty by both players. In the end, that can backfire.”

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