From the beginning, the summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was slated to be a strange event. What were Kim and Trump to even talk about, given how far U.S. and North Korean positions on nuclear weapons were from each other? Would Trump simply wing it through the negotiations? Overall, the historic magnitude of a sitting U.S. president meeting with a North Korean leader made it difficult to imagine precisely how it would play out and what it would lead to.
Still, any claims that Trump’s cancellation was unavoidable or even expected are obviously based on hindsight. Things could have unfolded very differently but Trump was faced with two options he hitherto either seemed unaware of or refused to recognize: to back off from demands that North Korea fully abolish all its nuclear weapons almost immediately and make more realistic demands, or to drop out of the summitry entirely. He chose the latter.
North Korea, on its end, has been fairly clear and consistent about its intentions and hard limits through the process. It has not once said it is prepared to fully give up its nuclear weapons, other than hinting that in some future, eschatological scenario where the world at large goes toward denuclearization. One need only read North Korea’s own statements, in plain sight, to see how unlikely and lofty an ambition full denuclearization was. John Bolton’s mention of Libya as a model for North Korean denuclearization may have been particularly provocative, but it was by no means something that radically changed North Korea’s calculus. The regime has seen full well with its own eyes what happened to Libya after it gave up its WMDs and to Iraq that never had any. Never mind the pullout from the Iran deal. North Korea was already unlikely to take the U.S. at its word, and the idea that it would give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a peace agreement or the like always seemed unlikely.
When North Korea’s Vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui stated on Thursday that she might advise North Korea’s supreme leadership to reconsider the summit, she merely repeated a long-standing North Korean policy line. Particularly, under Kim Jong-un, with the increase in rate and success of nuclear and missiles tests, North Korea has spoken like a nuclear state. Kim’s announcement that the country would now focus on economic development was not a statement of capitulation, but one of confidence. Choe was bluntly clear about North Korea’s intentions in this realm in her statement the other day [my emphasis added]:
We could surmise more than enough what a political dummy he is as he is trying to compare the DPRK, a nuclear weapon state, to Libya that had simply installed a few items of equipment and fiddled around with them. . . . It is to be underlined, however, that in order not to follow in Libya’s footstep, we paid a heavy price to build up our powerful and reliable strength that can defend ourselves and safeguard peace and security in the Korean peninsula and the region.
In other words, for very clear reasons (from their own point-of-view), North Korea’s nuclear deterrent as such is non-negotiable.
It was never clear precisely how the Trump administration envisioned that it would cross this hurdle. Some administration officials did hint that it may be prepared to talk about a partial dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, such as its intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the official line, by and large, remained that nothing short of full denuclearization would be acceptable. As long as that didn’t change, the talks simply couldn’t have progressed in any constructive or meaningful way.
With his letter, Trump was clearly trying to signal that he’s still willing to talk, if North Korea is prepared to reconsider its premises for the negotiations. Trump’s announcement was likely a strategic move, done with the hope that North Korea will come back to the table with conditions more favorable to the U.S.. That is unlikely to happen. Rather, it looks like the world is on track to return to the high tensions of last year, with North Korea and the U.S. trading insults back and forth, threatening to annihilate the other. The risk with ascending towards the summit was always that any downfall would be all the rougher the higher the hopes were.