After a few heated exchanges between North Korea and the United States over the past week, Donald Trump canceled the planned summit between the two nations this past Thursday. It might as well have, for Trump appeared to many as being woefully naïve in agreeing to hold the summit which was scheduled for next month in Singapore. For one, he was handing North Korea an international legitimacy they had long sought by having a meeting with an American president but had done nothing to earn. Others argued that North Korea had not had enough time to feel the “pain” of the new sanctions imposed by Trump when the summit was agreed to in March to truly change its ways. The cancelation gives vindication to those who had expressed real doubt over the talks.
Trump had been calling for the total denuclearization of North Korea as the centerpiece of the talks saying he would not except anything less than that. On this, Trump has been stubborn, and many observers pointed out it was only a matter of time before North Korea challenged America’s resolve on the matter. The diplomatic ship’s sailing became noticeably rocky after Trump’s newly installed, and controversial, national security advisor, John Bolton, cited Libya as a model for how to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program. This possible allusion to regime change caused North Korea to bristle and openly question going forward with the summit.
Tensions escalated even more when Vice President Mike Pence further drilled home the absolute denuclearization of North Korea in remarks that again hinted at the option of regime change. Pence said this past Monday referring to John Bolton’s previous statement, “There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong-un doesn’t make a deal.” North Korea responded by calling the Vice President stupid. “As a person involved in the U.S. affairs,” North Korean diplomat Choe Son Hui said, “I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. Vice President.” A few hours later, President Trump canceled the summit.
In a letter Trump sent to North Korea, which wreaked of injured pride, he said his decision to cancel the summit was “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement… 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.”
The Economist noted Trump’s wounded pride in the letter which the White House said had been drafted by he himself. The Economist wrote, “The distinct impression of wounded presidential pride must have delighted Mr Kim. Indeed, Mr Trump’s letter could hardly have broadcast his feelings of humiliation more clearly… It made Mr Trump sound like a nuclear-armed jilted lover.”
Will this be a sober lesson about the vicissitudes of diplomacy for President Trump? After all, he himself boasted that “everyone thinks” that he should get a Nobel Peace Prize for dealing with North Korea well before the summit began. But regardless of whatever lessons Trump may gain from this experience, North Korea is still in a tight spot. Before the talks of a possible summit between the two nations began, Trump imposed what he called the “toughest sanctions yet”—which they were and still are indeed. He also secured the release of the three Americans being held by the North Korean regime. Trump has now discovered what many of his predecessors learned from experience—that progress with North Korea is slow and very tentative.
Update: Donald Trump announced on Friday, June 1, that the summit between him and Kim Jong-un is back on. It will be held on its originally scheduled date of June 12.