WASHINGTON — United States President Donald Trump’s cancellation of next month’s summit with the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-un, came as a bit of a surprise and a jarring break from developments such as the release of three U.S. hostages by Pyongyang and the country’s apparent follow-through on a pledge to demolish its nuclear test facility.
In many ways, Trump’s letter cancelling the summit – which was due to begin on June 12 in Singapore – was a defensive reaction to the DPRK’ reminding the White House that it’s not a pushover and that its limited patience was being exhausted by the unceasingly hostile moves, confused stance, and belligerent rhetoric emanating from Washington.
Pyongyang had been crystal-clear that it wouldn’t swallow its pride, unilaterally surrender its nukes, or tolerate the Trump Administration’s cavalier and thoughtless shifting of goal-posts beyond acceptable lines.
The DPRK government has also keenly followed Washington’s moves not only in the Korean peninsula, but also in Libya, Iran, and any “independent [countries] against imperialism like Cuba and Venezuela or those countries disobedient to it.”
According to reports, Trump’s letter canceling talks — allegedly dictated word-for-word — was a largely impulsive move intended to pre-empt an expected withdrawal from the summit by Pyongyang. Multiple White House sources claim Pyongyang’s barbed reactions to administration talking points convinced the U.S. leader — with National Security Advisor John “Strike First” Bolton at his shoulder — to unexpectedly scrap talks and avoid the appearance of losing the initiative in the unfolding U.S.-DPRK diplomatic process.
A senior administration official also told reporters that Pyongyang had “simply stood [the White House] up” when it failed to send diplomats to meet Trump’s deputy chief of staff to Singapore for a meeting ahead of the summit. The move also came on the tail of recent tit-for-tat barbed statements and U.S. demands in recent weeks,
Trump’s pullout was roughly equivalent to the sentiment, “you can’t fire me – I quit!” However, he did importantly leave the door ajar for the eventual continuation of U.S.-DPRK diplomacy.
“We won’t beg; we never invited you to begin with”
Pyongyang’s cognizance of Washington’s continued hostility was made clear when DPRK Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui issued a statement Wednesday excoriating the “unbridled and impudent remarks” of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who once again – defying all common wisdom – compared the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to the disarming of Gaddafi-era Libya.
The late Libyan leader gave up his unfinished nuclear program only to be butchered later by NATO-backed fighters. Previous invocations of the precedent by Bolton had infuriated North Korean officials, who described such comments as deliberate provocations that would dampen talks and reverse progress “back to square one.”
Likewise, Pyongyang surely drew conclusions from the fate of the six-party nuclear deal the U.S. had signed with Iran in 2015. Following the signing of the deal, which stipulated the lifting of sanctions on Tehran in exchange for major restrictions on its civilian nuclear program, Washington repeatedly violated the spirit and letter of the accord before scrapping it altogether on spurious grounds.
I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice-president … it will be proper for him to know even a little bit about the current state of global affairs and to sense to a certain degree the trends in dialogue and the climate of détente.”
Stressing that the DPRK has paid a heavy price — including crippling sanctions, international isolation, and major financial costs — to achieve its “powerful and reliable strength” in the form of its deterrent arsenal, Choe added that the nuclear-equipped state is hardly comparable to a Libya “that had simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them” prior to surrendering its program and meeting “a tragic fate.” She concluded:
It is to be underlined, however, that in order not to follow in Libya’s footstep, we paid a heavy price to build up our powerful and reliable strength that can defend ourselves and safeguard peace and security in the Korean peninsula and the region.
It is the U.S. who has asked for dialogue, but now it is misleading the public opinion as if we have invited them to sit with us. I only wonder what is the ulterior motive behind its move and what is it the U.S. has calculated to gain from that.
We will neither beg the U.S. for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us … In case the U.S. offends against our goodwill and clings to unlawful and outrageous acts, I will put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the DPRK-U.S. summit.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — a regular visitor to Pyongyang in recent months — surely has gained some sympathy for his fired predecessor Rex Tillerson, who was often prevented from doing his job by his unpredictable commander-in-chief. In this case, his own hope to move forward and hold talks was frustrated by Bolton and Pence, who were reading from a “Libya” script that jarred with the motives of the Department of State.
Following the receipt of Trump’s letter, the DPRK leadership conveyed its desire to proceed with talks and credited the U.S. leader’s openness to holding them in the first place.
“We have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision, which any other US presidents dared not, and made efforts for such a crucial event as the summit,” Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan said in a Friday statement published by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
We remain unchanged in our goal and will to do everything we could for peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and humankind, and we, broadminded and open all the time, have the willingness to offer the US side time and opportunity.”
Trump’s response was also amiable, acknowledging the clearly tough path that will likely follow:
Cracks appear in the Seoul-Washington alliance
The cancellation may renew fears of a return to conflict on the Korean peninsula, as Trump ominously noted in his comment echoing last year’s “fire and fury” threats:
You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God that they will never have to be used.”
South Korea’s presidential Blue House hadn’t been notified in advance of Trump’s announcement and expressed shock to reporters over the cancellation. An official told Reuters that Seoul was “trying to figure out what President Trump exactly meant.”
On Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had met with Trump at the White House to urge that Trump persist in the pursuit of peace and not squander such a precious opportunity to engage with Pyongyang.
According to a report in South Korean daily Hankyoreh, published shortly before Trump’s letter went public, Moon had left with the impression that Washington shared Seoul’s desire to ensure that the summit would proceed as planned.
A senior Blue House official told the paper:
President Trump was completely on the same page about trying to arrange a successful summit with North Korea. There was no discussion about whether or not the summit needs to be held.”
Following the letter’s release, Moon called an emergency night-time meeting.
By early Friday, Seoul released a statement noting that Moon’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Pompeo had spoken and agreed to “devote effort to save the dialogue opportunity.”
China and DPRK draw closer, enraging Trump
While the talks have been placed on the back burner for now, the DPRK can point to a crucial strategic gain since Kim delivered a New Year’s address unexpectedly announcing an end to nuclear weapons tests and welcoming peace between the North and the South: the renewal of an alliance with neighboring China.
On Tuesday, during a meeting between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the U.S. leader blasted Chinese President Xi Jinping for allegedly sowing discord between Pyongyang and Washington during the second meeting between Kim and Xi earlier this month.
“I will say I’m a little disappointed, because when Kim Jong-un had the meeting with President Xi, in China, the second meeting—the first meeting we knew about—the second meeting—I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong-un,” the former reality-television star said. “So I don’t like that. I don’t like that.”
A day prior, Trump had issued a tweet deriding Chinese authorities for allegedly failing to honor U.N. sanctions imposed on the DPRK.
Beijing’s position is that it desires the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which includes the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons and the outsized U.S. military presence in South Korea.
China also seeks the relaxation of sanctions on the besieged nation, allowing Chinese companies the ability to assist in the development of the DPRK’s stifled economy.
On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry said it hoped the two parties maintained patience, a willingness to hear one another out and the shared goal of advancing denuclearization. Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said:
The Chinese government’s position on this issue is consistent and clear. We think, as the two directly involved parties, North Korea and the US holding a summit plays a key role in promoting denuclearization on the peninsula,”
During a meeting earlier this month between Kim and Xi, the Chinese leader hailed
Pyongyang’s “strategic shift towards economic development” and stressed Beijing’s support for “North Korea’s upholding of denuclearization on the peninsula, and … resolving the peninsula issue through dialogue and consultation.”
China’s Xinhua news agency noted that Kim said:
So long as relevant parties eliminate hostile policies and security threats toward North Korea, North Korea has no need for nuclear (capacity), and denuclearization can be realized.”
The DPRK wasn’t born last night; it won’t be subdued easily
As the week’s tug-of-war over talks shows, Trump’s idiosyncratic talent lies in his ability to wield bluster, insults and threats to his advantage – at one point ridiculing “Little Rocket Man” Kim and, at another, complimenting the “Honorable” supreme leader.
Such a style keeps the U.S. president’s counterparts constantly on their toes, unaware of what will come next and how they should respond. But such a game has its limits, especially when figures in his own administration try to apply the same methods and confusion results.
Either way, the incessant demands from the United States and tit-for-tat verbal sparring between Pyongyang and Washington had clearly rendered toxic the mood leading up to the June 12 Trump-Kim summit.
By canceling the summit despite DPRK measures to build goodwill, the U.S. leader hoped to save face while upping the pressure on Pyongyang. The DPRK’s affirmation of a continued desire for dialogue showed that Trump may have played his card well, despite his own officials’ culpability in derailing talks through their constant Libya references.
The talks will likely proceed following a cooling-off period and a bit of time apart from each other. Washington is no doubt aware of the inherent flaws in its uncompromising approach, while Pyongyang has made clear that it’s not a matter of if, but of when and how the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula takes place. Kim has never tired of pointing out how such weapons are key to ensuring the security of the DPRK’s leadership and people.
Yet while Washington may think that it’s justified in its suspicion toward Pyongyang, it will have to go a lot further in ensuring that it should actually be taken seriously as a partner in peace rather than an erratic and belligerent adversary. In short, Trump has to get his own house in order.
After months of public outreach by Pyongyang and various gestures aiming to convince its neighbors of its peaceful intentions, the DPRK has made vast strides in undermining the U.S. case for war.
Regardless of how talks with the U.S. proceed, Pyongyang’s well-earned diplomatic capital may yield high dividends in the form of better relations with Seoul, Beijing, and the rest of the international community.
Top Photo | President Donald Trump speaks during a signing ceremony, on Thursday canceled next month’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, citing the “tremendous anger and open hostility” in a recent statement by the North. Evan Vucci | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.