President Trump canceled the much-anticipated summit with Kim Jong Un that was supposed to happen next month in a letter to the North Korean dictator on Thursday. His decision to walk away from denuclearization talks came out of left field, but anyone who’s been paying attention knows that Trump made the right move — he managed to do exactly what President Obama failed to do during the Iran negotiations.
Trump’s letter, addressed to Kim, was brief and to the point and devoid of the inflammatory language he has used in the past with North Korea. He wrote that his decision to call off the June summit was based on the “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” He said that he therefore felt it was “inappropriate” to go through with the meeting. Trump also thanked Kim for releasing three Americans earlier this month, calling it a “beautiful gesture.”
The “tremendous anger” that Trump is referring to has to do with North Korea’s reaction to something that Vice President Mike Pence said earlier this week about Libya. But let’s back up for a moment to properly understand the context here.
Earlier this month, National Security Advisor John Bolton said that the Libya model of denuclearization would be a good model to follow for North Korea. This caused no small amount of uproar, because, while Bolton was referring to Libya’s denuclearization, Pyongyang feigned horror that what he really meant was that Kim would end up deposed in a violent rebellion, just like Muammar Gaddafi was in 2011.
Back to Pence. The vice president suggested in an interview on Monday that if North Korea “doesn’t make a deal,” or if it tries to play Trump at the summit, then Kim might end up like Gaddafi. Oy vey. North Korea reacted predictably, calling Pence’s remarks “ignorant and stupid,” and calling Pence a “political dummy.” Cue Trump’s letter canceling the summit.
But here’s the thing. Although what Pence said was in fact pretty ignorant and imprudent, and although North Korea’s reaction was fairly hostile, none of that is why Trump walked away from the summit. He walked away because it had become increasingly obvious to him and his national security team that Pyongyang had no intention of negotiating in good faith.
Anyone who’s been watching the developing saga could see the writing on the wall. Earlier this month, North Korea backtracked on its previous statement to the South Koreans that it “understands that the routine joint military exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue.” In an abrupt about-face, Pyongyang called the ongoing and long-planned joint military drills “provocations,” suspended planned talks with South Korea, and threatened to cancel the summit. All of this came prior to the Libya comments.
What’s more, North Korea’s vice foreign minister said earlier this month that “If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.” That’s kind of a non-starter when the whole point of the summit is to discuss denuclearization, something the North has been indicating for months that it’s open to.
Apparently, North Korea was sending some pretty strong signals behind the scenes as well. Later on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a senate panel that North Korea had gone completely AWOL in its communications with the Trump administration about arranging the pre-summit negotiations. Pompeo said that the North had stopped responding to inquiries about the matter. According to Pompeo, he and his team had been proceeding with the preparations that were sketched out when he and Kim met in March, and again earlier this month.
The White House echoed these statements, saying that “there has been a trail of broken promises” and that North Korea had suspended “direct communication with the United States.” What’s more, the North Koreans were a no-show at a planned meeting in Singapore on Tuesday to make preparations for the planned high-level summit.
Given all that, it’s no wonder that Trump walked away from the summit. The North was trying to move the goal posts without anyone calling foul. Pyongyang made a lot of noise in the first few months of this year, making it seem like the Kermit Kingdom had finally come around, that it was really ready to talk without preconditions. Military drills? No problem. Total denuclearization? We’re open it, let’s talk. But once Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae In started responding to these overtures, North Korea began changing its position, inch-by-inch. The Kim regime apparently thought that South Korea and the Trump administration were so desperate to make a deal that they would put up with just about anything. And it seemed, for a while, like North Korea was right.
The South Koreans have been acting desperate since Kim first made his overture in a New Year’s Day speech. The fact that Trump followed suit was more of a surprise, especially given his fiery language directed at Kim throughout the past year. But it seems that it began to dawn on Trump that he had an opportunity to do something historic here, that this could be part of his legacy. He would be the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader. He — not Obama — would be the president to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis. There were even commemorative coins made up to mark the occasion. Maybe it all went to his head.
But once the North Koreans began backtracking on conditions for the summit, and even the purpose of the summit, Trump needed to let them know that he’s not afraid to walk away, that he won’t accept a bad deal and that he won’t be played. That’s exactly what he did by withdrawing from the summit, whether that was his intention or not.
In effect, Trump is doing what Obama should have done when his administration was negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. Obama was so desperate to get some kind of an historic deal, to be the president that finally brokered a rapprochement with Tehran, that he accepted terms and conditions he shouldn’t have. Trump was headed down that same path. And while Trump left open the possibility of the summit getting back on track, or another summit taking place in the future, he also said that “we’ve got to get it right.” Pompeo echoed him, saying, “A bad deal is not an option,” and that “If the right deal is not on the table, we will respectfully walk away.”
By walking away, and insisting on a good deal or no deal, they are putting the ball back in North Korea’s court, where it belongs.