Tom Fowdy, a postgraduate student of Chinese studies at Oxford University, examines the road ahead for bringing peace to the Korean peninsula…
Just over a week ago, Donald Trump made a public announcement that the long-awaited summit between himself and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would take place in Singapore on June 12.
He expressed confidence that he would be able to strike a deal with the isolated nation’s leader to secure peace with the US and bring an end to the country’s much-feared nuclear weapons development.
Since the time of that announcement, things have fallen apart an unprecedented, yet unsurprising pace. Following a heated exchange of rhetoric between North Korea’s state news agency and Vice President Mike Pence, Trump, without giving advance warning to anyone, pulled the plug on the summit on Thursday (May 24) with a personally signed letter to Kim.
Although he didn’t rule out the prospect of future dialogue, he proceeded immediately to revert back to a militarist posture, leaving the world aghast at the bizarre turn of events.
The cancellation of the event leaves many wider questions, including why did this happen? What does it mean now? And what should we expect in the coming months?
Although Trump cited North Korea’s rhetoric as his official “excuse” for pulling out, the summit failed because of the enormous gulf in expectations between both sides and the lack of clear diplomatic groundwork in preparation to support it.
Trump sought instant denuclearisation, something that would be verifiable, quick and not repeating “the mistakes of the past”. He believed it was possible. Overconfident that his threats of force and application of sanctions had forced North Korea to conceding, he saw the meeting as an opportunity to frame a foreign policy “win” for himself and be the one who brought an end to the Korea issue for once and for all.
Talk of a Nobel Prize did not help these delusions. Thus, when South Korean diplomats visited Washington in March with the news that Kim desired to meet with Trump and was prepared to discuss “denuclearisation”, the president dived at the opportunity and accepted Kim’s invitation within reportedly 45 minutes of receiving it.
The resulting mess was very much visible in public rhetoric, with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders denying that Trump had conceded to the meeting, only to be overruled by another spokesman later on. Trump had jumped in without thinking.
North Korea, however, saw things very differently. For them, as stated in previous pieces, it has never been about simply meeting with Trump, conceding to all America’s terms, unilaterally disarming in a rapid timeframe and then open up to the world. The administration itself and the global media truly believed Kim was desperate.
The reality was far from it, with these assumptions miscalculating Kim’s sincerity and failing to recognise that such moves, in the prospect of North Korea’s interests, would be highly naïve. They would disintegrate the legitimacy of the North Korean leadership, ideology and the state itself.
Instead, Kim was not waving the white flag, but seeking the international prestige of meeting with an American President. His goal was to hammer out a peace deal on terms strictly suitable to him, presenting himself a victor who could stand up to, negotiate with and win respect from America as an equal partner.
Although third party diplomatic rhetoric from South Korea and America hinted at Kim’s own willingness to denuclearise his country, this line was never repeated in North Korea’s state media and official rhetoric. While denuclearisation was certainly never ruled out, it existed primarily as an aspiration, one to be achieved when North Korea got what it wanted, if it all.
Consequentially, as these gaping differences in expectations and political stakes began to emerge in the open, rhetoric on both sides started to harden. The administration, believing it was talking from position of strength, undermined its own position by continuing to think that “talking tough” would keep Kim “on his knees.
John Bolton spoke, perhaps deliberately, of the “Libya model”, Trump threatened to “decimate” North Korea if Kim was not prepared to make a deal and Mike Pence also perpetuated hostile rhetoric.
At the very same time, Pyongyang was also making it known that it would not want the one-sided deal the US was proposing and that negotiations, needed to be “fair”. State media lashed out at Bolton, lashed out at Pence and soon Kim started turning the screws on South Korea, cancelling talks with them and criticising military exercises.
On both sides, it was obvious that neither were never going to accept what was being put on the table. The reality cut through the optimism. It was a summit that had been derived out of pure opportunism by both Trump and Kim, both having other political priorities in mind beyond the securing of peace.
Trump, fearing failure, pulled the plug on it and reverted back to openly aggressive rhetoric. He had miscalculated.
So what happens now? Although it is certainly bad news, not everything is back to square one. Conditions remain different from a year ago. North Korea is not provoking, it has ceased testing outright, it destroyed its nuclear site on and has engaged in diplomatic rapprochement with China, South Korea and South East Asia.
Seoul risks having sharp disagreements with Washington now, having expressed “deep regret” at Trump’s decision, hosted an emergency national security council meeting and requesting North Korea and the US return to talks. As they have already committed to peace with Kim, Moon having left Washington only on Wednesday believing the summit would go ahead, Trump has thrown a huge spanner in the works, but not all is lost.
Despite everything, dialogue between the two countries has not broken down completely. It will continue behind the scenes. But it is worth noting that publicly, Trump is going to be huffing and puffing for results. If an alternative arrangement is not found soon, then he’s without a doubt going to become more confrontational again in a bid to get Kim to the table.
But, because he set himself up for a fall with the summit and shifted the diplomatic momentum into the hands into the hands of other countries, he’s going to be more isolated and find himself with considerably less sympathy (especially from China) than before. An interesting road lies ahead.