The cancellation of the much-hyped planned summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was not completely unexpected for several reasons. Yet the questions that are being asked are: Why did the proposed summit collapse? Who benefits most from it?
The war of words between these two countries in recent days, particularly the evocation of the “Libya Model” by US National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence, had already made the summit uncertain despite scheduling a date and agreeing on a venue. The so-called Libya Model essentially refers to the “regime change” doctrine that cannot be tolerated, let alone acceptable, to any government. Subsequent explanations, including that of President Trump's, weren't sufficient to assuage the North Koreans. Anyone with knowledge of the North Korean arguments for having a nuclear weapon programme would know that they are aware of, in their words, “the tragic consequences in those countries which abandoned halfway their nuclear programmes.”
Bolton's comment was dovetailed with the White House spokesperson's insistence on “unilateral denuclearisation,” a position Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored, but a condition that North Korea outrightly rejected. First Vice Foreign Minister of North Korea Kim Kye Gwan, also the country's top nuclear weapons negotiator, warned that if the Trump administration “is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such a dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.” These developments already changed the tone of North Korea, which Trump in his letter to Kim described as “tremendous anger and open hostility.” Indeed, for President Trump, the timeline of these developments is inverted; North Korea was reacting to the provocative statements, not the other way around. However, various official sources said that well before this exchange, communications between the US and North Korea, and between South and North Korea, were becoming infrequent in the past ten days.
Equally important to note is that there were other developments which might have already encouraged Kim to slow down and take a tougher stance. The rapidity and nature of the talk might have been viewed in Pyongyang as capitulating to the US pressure too quickly abandoning all the achievements of the past years. The not-so-veiled threat to the US in the statement of vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui is an indication of the possibility of such tensions within the North Korea government. President Trump alluded that China might have a role in the change of tone of Kim. As China and the US is in an “almost trade war,” it is not unlikely that China would encourage Kim to slow down and use the summit as leverage. If the White House was not taking that possibility into account, it only exposes its naivete. Confronting China when it is a key player in an emerging historic deal does not show good diplomatic judgement.
The tug of war between the hawks and the relatively moderate section within the Trump administration has played a significant role in the cancellation decision. When Trump accepted the offer to meet Kim, H R McMaster was his National Security Advisor and Rex Tillerson was his Secretary of State; both are now replaced by the more hawkish John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. The decision, despite Pompeo's several trips to Pyongyang, has marks of both.
These political dynamics aside, there are both substantive and procedural issues which have contributed to the current situation. On substantive matters, the disagreement on what is meant by “denuclearisation” has not been resolved. North Korea and the United States have different notions of denuclearisation which precluded any direct talks in the past decades. Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, had offered to sit with US presidents, but those offers didn't go far because North Korean leaders insisted that its nuclear weapons programme couldn't be a topic of discussion. Kim Jong-un moved away from that position by bringing denuclearisation on the agenda but hasn't backed down from the idea that any deal must include an end to the US-South Korea alliance and withdrawal of US troops from Korea.
Procedurally speaking, the lightning speed of this summit preparation had all the marks of an impulsive Trump. Usually, the pathway of a summit is bottom-up; that is, official-level meetings set the tone and details of the agreement, even before the possibility of the summit is announced. The summit becomes the photo-op. In this instance, both acceptance and cancellation were done in haste. Trump's penchant for drama was in full display. Sabrina Siddiqui's description of the style of Trump is more apt, “The spectacle of his rushed talks with Pyongyang, and then swift exit from the table, has only underscored the chaos and inconsistency that has defined his presidency—both domestically and abroad, and from everything from the world stage to protests in sports.” (The Guardian, May 24, 2018)
The announcement not only caught Pyongyang by surprise, but also caught Seoul off-guard. If the summit is completely abandoned, it will have a serious political implication for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has built his entire political career around the reconciliation of two Koreas. But most importantly, this has once again sent a signal to the allies of the United States that Trump has very little regard for allies and working together. The decision will frustrate many Asian countries but will bring some relief to Japan. Tokyo had said that it was completely left out of the negotiations.
But overall, China will benefit immensely. A peace deal that reduces US presence and influence in the region will ultimately benefit China; it is in the best interests of China to see a deal. But in the short term, slowing down the entire process will help Beijing emerge as the mediator between North Korea and the US and squeeze concessions from the US in trade talks. This is not to say that China engineered the cancellation—that seems to be the making of the Trump administration; at least it contributed to the creation of the environment and quickly stepped out without waiting for North Korea to act.
As of now, North Korea seems to benefit the most. Its initial reaction that it still expects the summit to happen shows that it is playing a longer game. Previously a pariah, North Korea and Kim have earned substantial goodwill around the world lately without making any diplomatic concessions or behavioural changes.
Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of political science at the Illinois State University, USA.