President Donald Trump on Thursday canceled a highly anticipated summit with Kim Jong Un, claiming the North Korean leader had passed up a great opportunity at lasting peace. But experts tell HuffPost it was Kim who provoked Trump to ax the June 12 meeting ― isolating the U.S. from its Asian allies and indefinitely postponing talks of Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
“Kim baited Trump into pulling out of the summit, and Trump took the bait,” said Vipin Narang, a professor of international relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The meeting was always a risky endeavor. Trump and Kim spent the better part of 2017 trading insults and threats over North Korea’s aggressive development of nuclear warheads. But on March 8, South Korea’s national security adviser announced from the White House that Trump and Kim had agreed to meet. As discussions over the details of the summit unfolded ― where would it take place, and what exactly would be at stake ― Trump boasted that the development was proof his belligerent stance against Pyongyang could bring the regime to the negotiating table.
But many analysts were unsurprised that a Trump administration short on foreign policy experience wasn’t able to pull it off. “They clearly don’t have the personnel in place and the mindset to accomplish much in these delicate sorts of exchanges,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “We can’t even reach and stick to trade agreements with close partners.”
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush spent years trying to reach agreements with North Korea to curtail its nuclear and missile programs, but the talks proved fraught with complications. North Korean diplomats are experts in sending mixed signals, often suggesting a willingness to compromise before reversing tack. During negotiations with the Trump administration, North Korea announced it would not agree to a summit if the U.S. insisted on denuclearization, the major focus of the talks. Just this week, North Korea proudly announced it would destroy a nuclear test site, but at the same time reportedly put off the Trump administration’s questions about arrangements for the summit.
“I’m not at all surprised the whole thing blew up,” said Van Jackson, a North Korea expert at the Victoria University of Wellington. “The structure of the situation and the basic conflict of interests had not changed at all from last year.”
As more and more fractures emerged in the lead-up to June 12, it became clear Trump wouldn’t get the easy public relations victory he’d envisioned.
“This was never taken seriously as an arms control negotiation, it was only taken seriously as a stage show to make Donald Trump look big and powerful,” said Stephen Schwartz, an independent nuclear policy consultant. “I felt that as things drew closer and Trump realized like he wasn’t going to get the grand submission with Kim on his knees, that things were not going to go well.”
Bruised egos were at least partly at the core of the summit’s collapse, said Jeff Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute.
“North Korea did the one thing Trump couldn’t handle: humiliate him. I think Trump was prepared to swallow the idea of Kim keeping his nuclear arsenal, but he is not prepared to swallow his pride,” Lewis said. “Trump is the one who’s going to take the blame for this.”
Trump’s haphazard attempt at a deal, followed by his abrupt exit, may have far-reaching consequences, analysts fear. The lead-up to the summit provided Kim with an opportunity to reduce tensions and sanctions, and its breakdown brought North Korea the added benefit of creating a rift between the U.S. and its Asian allies.
I felt that as things drew closer and Trump realized like he wasn’t going to get the grand submission with Kim on his knees, that things were not going to go well.
Stephen Schwartz, nuclear policy consultant
“Kim also wanted to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. and China, and he’s done that,” Schwartz said. “Donald Trump fell right into it, and he has no one to blame but himself.”
Thursday’s news was devastating to Seoul, which appeared blindsided by the announcement. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been performing diplomatic gymnastics behind the scenes to minimize the possibility of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.
At the same time, the cancellation eases pressure on China, North Korea’s closest ally and trading partner. For months, the U.S. had strong-armed Beijing to pressure Kim’s regime into denuclearization. It’s unlikely the Chinese will once again be willing to ratchet up the pressure after the negotiations provided a softening of relations.
“The maximum pressure campaign is broke,” Pollack said. “It’s over.”
It’s unclear how international negotiations with North Korea will unfold following Trump’s decision. Experts worry the U.S. may find itself diplomatically isolated, with few options to limit Pyongyang’s nuclear program through sanctions or negotiations. At the same time, Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, has made it clear he wants to keep military options open.
“If North Korea starts testing missiles or nuclear weapons again, then we’re back to 2017 or worse, and we now have a national security adviser that’s gone on the record talking about a first strike of North Korea. We could be in a very different world,” Narang said.
Jackson also fears that tensions between Washington and Pyongyang could flare up to dangerous levels yet again.
“With no summit in the offing, the preventive war narrative is likely to make a comeback,” he said. “Dangerous times ahead.”