The much-anticipated summit meeting scheduled for mid-June between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore has been cancelled. The decision was made by President Trump following recent comments and actions by North Korea indicating that perhaps the North was not turning over a new leaf as many were hoping. Last week Pyongyang canceled scheduled talks with South Korea over joint US-South Korean military exercises going on in the South. Earlier this week, the first cracks became apparent. On Monday, North Korea made comments suggesting a nuclear showdown could occur if talks between the US and North Korea fail. Twenty-four hours later, Trump indicated there was a chance the planned summit might not take place at the planned time and place. Unknown to many outsiders, and journalists at the time, the president was making reference to North Korea’s failure to attend recent meetings in Singapore to work out planning for the summit. Then came Thursday’s cancellation with Trump citing North Korea’s ‘tremendous anger and open hostility’
What happens next is the great unknown. The cancellation took South Korea by complete surprise. South Korean President Moon Jae-in expended a lion’s share of political capital to make the US-North Korean summit a reality. In politics, of course, perception matters more than reality. Moon has to know his image will take a big hit as the fallout from the cancelled summit settles. Upon learning of Trump’s decision to call the meeting off, the South Korean government expressed complete surprise. Moon called an emergency meeting of his close advisers, and national security team to try and make sense of the US move.
The South Koreans are on the sidelines for the time being, however. The next step in this unfolding drama will depend on Pyongyang and how Kim chooses to respond.
Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in have concluded their one-day summit in the South Korean section of the Joint Security Area The first meeting between leaders of the two Koreas in over a decade was heavy on symbolism and drama. The two leaders pledged to bring the Korean War to a formal end, as well as make the entire Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. The global media simply could not get enough, declaring the meeting to be a success far beyond the hopes of both sides, and fawning over the images of Kim Jong Un crossing the border into South Korea.
What the media fails to mention is the fact that the two Koreas have been down this road before. At the previously held inter-Korean summit meetings the leaders of both nations made broad promises to cooperate on a number of issues, and pave the way for closer relations in the future. As time went on, the opposite happened and the Koreas returned to the tense, hostile relationship that both sides had hoped was permanently in the past. With this in mind, many observers are understandably skeptical about the pledges made by Un and Moon.
The 2018 summit is neither an end or a beginning. It is the latest move in a decades-long chess match. The overall hope is that this gathering has laid the groundwork for a more crucial meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in the near future. Achieving this was a goal of both Korean leaders, but for entirely different reasons. Moon was intent on being seen as the man greatly responsible for thawing the US-North Korean standoff and bringing both sides to the negotiating table. He also wants to be able to take a large portion of the credit for any US-North Korean agreements regarding denuclearization. Un wants to negotiate with the United States, however, his reasons and motivation are suspect. Meeting with Trump as an equal would be seen as a major victory in Un’s eyes and establish North Korea as a world power. If there’s no concrete chances of him relinquishing North Korea’s nuclear weapons though, it’s highly unlikely the United States will agree to a meeting. And right now, there’s no proof the North Koreans intend to remain committed to denuclearizing their half of the peninsula, regardless of Un’s promises at the summit meeting yesterday.
As South Korean President Moon Jae-in touts the progress his administration has made in improving relations with North Korea, many of his fellow countrymen remain skeptical about the sincerity behind North Korea’s promises to end missile tests, and close its nuclear test site down permanently. South Koreans may not be entirely jaded, but they’ve been down this road enough times to know from experience that the chance of the North living up to its promises is slim. Earlier attempts by South Korean leaders to improve relations between the Koreas have all been relatively short-lived. The relationship between North and South always returned to the bitterness, and hostility that has largely defined it since the end of the Korean War. Moon enjoys a high level of popularity among South Koreans at the moment. However, if his renewed Sunshine Policy doesn’t net results, Moon could be facing political problems at home and abroad.
Moon appears convinced North Korea is sincere and desires complete denuclearization. He has been open in his opinions, and, whether he is aware of it or not, has become an unsanctioned interpreter of North Korea’s perceived intentions. Others would consider him to be something more akin to a mouthpiece for his North Korean counterpart. His determination to seal the deal on North Korean denuclearization and attach it to a potential peace treaty is bold and perilous. If North Korea does forfeit its nuclear weapons, Moon’s political capital will soar. On the flip side, if the North decides to keep its nuclear weapons, or the love-fest Moon is promoting does not carry over to US-North Korean relations, the South Korean leader will be the scapegoat.
Moon’s role in the current drama playing out is quite significant. However, it would benefit him to remember that he is a supporting character. Inter-Korean relations are secondary to the standoff between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear arsenal. The direction events go in following next week’s meeting between Moon and Kim Jong Un will be determined largely in Pyongyang and Washington, not Seoul.
North Korea announced today that it will be officially suspending missile testing, and the nuclear test site where six nuclear tests were conducted in the past will be closed.
“From April 21, North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report Saturday morning. The announcement comes less than a week before North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are scheduled to meet in the first inter-Korean summit to be held in over a decade.
Placing a moratorium on nuclear missile tests, and shutting down the nuclear test site are very likely calculated moves by Pyongyang. As North Korea basks in the glow of increasing media adoration, the hope probably is that these moves will be viewed as example of how Kim Jong Un and his government’s sincerity towards denuclearization, and its desire to improve relations with South Korea, and ultimately the United States.
This news just broke a short time ago, and as more information becomes available, I will add a more in-depth update Saturday evening or Sunday morning.
The path leading to a future meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un more closely resembles a minefield. A myriad of potentially explosive obstacles and variables will have to be navigated around or defused if the potential meeting is to become a reality. All parties involved are moving into uncharted territory. Never before have a US president and North Korean leader met face-to-face. Rarely in the past has a US president met with the leader of an adversarial nation-state during a period of such heightened tension. The 1961 summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna is probably the last time anything like this took place.
One of the driving forces behind the Vienna Summit was Khrushchev’s desire to size up the young American leader early in his presidency and determine what he was about. Something similar is happening right now. President Trump’s approach to North Korea is decidedly different from how his predecessors dealt with Pyongyang and it’s left Kim Jong Un stymied to a large degree. The curved strategy and strongarm tactics he used successfully with President Obama, and that his father used with Bush and Clinton have not worked with the current US president. Trump has been far more confrontational and direct in his dealings with the North Korean leader. Kim’s initial response was to raise the ante even more. This, however, only exacerbated the situation more and placed North Korea at a disadvantage.
For the moment, Trump and the United States has the initiative. North Korea’s extended PR/Propaganda offensive has brought it back into the game, though it will all be for nothing if Kim Jong Un does not meet with President Trump and negotiate in good faith. This is the point when the big picture becomes murky because of those obstacles and variables I spoke of before. Kim can point to one of these factors and use it as a reason to call off the meeting, whether the reason is genuine or not. Anything from the logistics of the meeting, to the roles played by South Korea and Japan have the potential to act as justifications for Kim to cancel the meeting and accuse the United States of deliberately setting up North Korea to look bad.
With luck, as the next week or two go on, the level of North Korea’s sincerity can be determined. If it becomes clear that Kim is simply wasting everyone’s time with the prospects of a US-North Korean meeting, don’t be surprised to see Trump cancel. Ironically enough, this could very well be exactly what Kim wants. Given the byzantine nature of North Korea’s actions and strategies it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Time will tell.