To Kim Jong Un, May 24 should have been a diplomatic triumph. The North Korean leader had just opened the doors of his isolated country to the world, allowing foreign journalists to observe what had deemed a crowning achievement in Pyongyang’s nuclear quest.
The test site at Punggye-Ri was to be dismantled, he’d announced earlier this year, because North Korea had accomplished its nuclear goals and no longer needed to keep conducting missile launches.
Still on a high from his visits with foreign leaders and the anticipation of a meeting – finally – with a sitting American president, he declared international journalists would be welcome to witness his regime’s transparency in destroying tunnels and shutting down the mountain.
It was a far cry from last year, when he’d boasted of North Korea’s ability to send missiles to the US mainland, ratcheting up threats of nuclear annihilation as President Donald Trump responded in equally fiery tones.
But after nearly six months of calm dotted with bright moments of unity and promises of reconciliation and peace, the Korean peninsula is once again thrust into uncertainty after Trump informed Kim that the summit was canceled.
Seemingly caught unawares, the Kim regime rushed to present a response that was both conciliatory and admiring of Trump, while defensive and defiant of its outreach efforts.
As far as the summit with Trump was concerned, “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,” read the statement from First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kim Kye Gwan.
In the weeks leading up to the historic meeting both sides had criticized the other while also promising economic rejuvenation and expressing readiness to resolve decades-long conflicts.
But they had also both threatened to pull out of the talks, and they had both promised to deploy military options should diplomacy fail.
In his letter to Kim Jong Un canceling the summit Trump wrote: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
“Well, I think North Korea almost dared Trump to cancel the summit, and he did it,” said Srinivasan Sitaraman, political science professor at Clark University. “The North Korean statement yesterday was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, referring to the statement by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, which referred to US Vice President Mike Pence as “a political dummy” who’d made “ignorant and stupid remarks.”
“I don’t think after yesterday’s North Korean statement there was any way for the summit to go forward,” he told CNN.
Like other North Korean experts Sitaraman believes it’s best the summit not happen because there is still bad blood between the two parties, and zero trust.
“There is fundamental misunderstanding between the American and the North Korean positions,” he said. “North Korea never ever promised that they would give up their weapons, while the US continued to demand full denuclearization and surrender.”
Whether the end of talks might lead to the resumption of hostilities is an open question.
“The US and North Korea need some time for full consideration of what has made such failure,” said Chang-Hoon Shin, a senior research fellow with the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy. “In the absence of mutual credibility, the differences of opinions and methods to a long journey of denuclearization continued to be widened. I mean, the failure was inevitable.”
In Seoul, an embarrassed President Moon Jae-in, who had met with Trump in Washington less than 24 hours earlier, hurriedly convened an emergency meeting of his cabinet to attempt to decipher the meaning of Trump’s decision, and where South Korea, which has been at the forefront of talks with North Korea, goes next.
“South Korea’s mediator or driver-seat role has failed, and President Moon and his staff will come under heavy criticism,” said Seong Whun Cheon, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. The two Koreas’ plan to end the war and sign a peace treaty “will be derailed for an unforeseeable period of time,” he predicted.
“I’m already beginning to see some statements from South Korea that seem to intimate that it might try to salvage the summit with Moon up for re-election soon, and the immense domestic reverberation that the cancellation will bring,” said Sitaraman.
“South Korea might try to decouple all of the issues they are trying to work out with the North and table the “full denuclearization” aspect while working towards their other goals,” he told CNN.
In his letter to Kim, Trump left the door open to future talks, and indeed, now that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already traveled to Pyongyang twice and met with Kim on both occasions, that channel may be able to prevent immediate military reactions, says David Maxwell, a retired US Army Special Forces colonel and a fellow at the Institute of Korean American Studies.
“Maybe in the long run this will put us on the track to have our diplomats engage and set the scene for something to happen over the next six months,” he told CNN.
A potential problem will come with reaction in Beijing and Moscow, he noted. Both North Korean allies, Russia and China have yielded to pressure from the US to enact punishing economic sanctions on North Korea. The White House has claimed those were instrumental in bringing Kim to the negotiating table in the first place.
Given that Trump, and not Kim has walked away from the June meeting, both nations can now potentially relax those sanctions and blame the US for the failure in diplomacy, says Maxwell.
“I think China and Russia will say: ‘You backed out of the invitation, the US is the one that is acting irrationally, that is operating irresponsibly, so we need to ease up on the sanctions to help the Korean people,’ so they have the justification for reducing the sanctions,” he said. “In some ways, Kim is still playing a masterful game.”
Maxwell speculates that Kim might have been skittish about coming to the summit because he would have had to stand before the world and agree to terms that he may not have been able to sell back home. It’s possible, Maxwell argues, that North Korea turned up the rhetoric to extort a response from Trump and prompt the US to back out first.
“I think they reverted to their old playbook, cause tensions to rise and have them cancel,” he posited. “The test site destruction was simply a sham and I think that’s been exposed, and the only reason for continuing the summit, the only benefit he would get, is a direct meeting with the President.”
It’s possible, Maxwell says, that Kim calculated that even such a tempting prize was not worth the risk, if it weakened his position at home.