Report

Now That the Summit Is Off Between the U.S. and North Korea, What’s Next?

Six questions to ponder after Trump’s announcement, including — what will become of those coins?

President Donald Trump speaks about the canceled summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a bill-signing ceremony at the White House on May 24. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks about the canceled summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a bill-signing ceremony at the White House on May 24. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel a June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is only the latest development in a yearlong relationship that has run hot and cold.

“I was very much looking forward to being there with you,” Trump wrote in a letter to Kim on Thursday that toggled between amicable and menacing. “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.” 

In the aftermath, here are six things to consider about the decision.

1. Why did Trump cancel the summit?

The cancellation comes after days of heated rhetoric between the two countries over the question of North Korea’s full and immediate nuclear disarmament and comparisons U.S. administration officials have made to the “Libya model.” In 2003, the George W. Bush administration persuaded Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up its small nuclear program. Eight years later, rebels backed by NATO air power deposed Qaddafi and beat him to death — a cautionary tale for Pyongyang.

This week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said North Korea would go the way of Libya if the two sides failed to reach a deal. A Kim aide responded with a statement calling Pence a “political dummy.” Even Trump’s cordial letter — every word of which he dictated, according to a White House official — included a menacing note: “You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

Speaking with reporters on Thursday, a White House official said that North Korean diplomats stood up White House officials who had traveled to Singapore for talks on the summit’s logistics. The official added that communication between the United States and North Korea had broken down and that Pyongyang had broken promises by canceling meetings with South Korean diplomats and refusing to invite nuclear experts to witness the destruction of its nuclear weapons testing site.

2. Is it a bluff?

It could be. Trump clearly wants a summit in order to burnish his foreign-policy credentials. He has referred to himself in recent weeks as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. By canceling, Trump might be hoping Kim will beg for a summit, making the terms more favorable for the United States.

“It’s a classic Trump move,” says Mickey Bergman, the vice president of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, who has participated in informal contacts between the two sides, known as Track II talks. He said that while the tactic may work in real estate, it hasn’t been successful for Trump in diplomacy so far.

Speaking from the White House on Thursday, Trump raised the possibility that he may still meet with Kim. “It’s possible that the existing summit could take place or a summit at some later date,” Trump said. “Nobody should be anxious.”

3. Was the decision coordinated with U.S. allies?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has done more than any other leader to bring the United States and North Korea together, was in Washington this week. So was Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono. But Trump would not necessarily have consulted with the two countries before his announcement.

“This president does not seem to be playing with others,” Bergman says, noting that the announcement is particularly problematic for Moon, who has made reconciliation a cornerstone of his administration’s policy.

The Japanese, on the other hand, may quietly welcome the decision. Japan had been wary of the outcome of any summit, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declined to meet with Kim.

“Shinzo Abe and [U.S. National Security Advisor] John Bolton are the two big winners today,” says Sean King, who served as a senior Commerce Department official in the Bush administration and is now an executive at Park Strategies. Bolton unnerved Pyongyang late last month when he spoke of imposing elaborate, up-front restrictions on the North akin to the Libya model and is already being blasted as the saboteur of the summit.

4. What about sanctions?

The United States already has formidable sanctions in place against North Korea. Advocates of isolating the regime argue that more U.S. pressure could be brought to bear by cracking down on Chinese banks facilitating North Korean sanctions evasion and by pressuring countries that play host to North Korean laborers to repatriate them ahead of the two-year timeline mandated by U.N. sanctions.

“Right now, there’s a lot more that the Trump administration could do,” says Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Treasury Department sanctions official. “You have to back it up with real consequences if persons continue to do business with North Korea.”

Still, the success of any sanctions regime inevitably hinges on China’s willingness to squeeze its neighbor. China appears to have stepped up its enforcement of sanctions against the North, but its extensive business ties and expansive border with the country means Beijing can easily and quickly relax restrictions on the North Korean economy.

5. What’s next?

Trump could choose to send Secretary of State Mike Pompeo back to Pyongyang for more talks. Pompeo made to two trips to North Korea in the past two months and managed to negotiate the release of three American captives held there. But much depends on how Kim responds to Trump’s announcement.

Robert Manning, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, says the effort at reconciliation had been undermined by sound bites and ultimatums.

“This is sort of what happens when you do diplomacy backwards, upside down, by a megaphone,” he says, mentioning Trump’s “constant tweets.”

Bergman suggests that the summit might still go ahead but without a prior announcement — taking some of the scrutiny off the two leaders ahead of the meeting.

6. What about those coins?

In what will certainly go down as an embarrassing example of the proverbial cart going before the horse, the White House minted dozens of commemorative coins ahead of the summit, embossed with the words “peace talks” and headshots of Trump and Kim. If the two leaders eventually meet, the coins will be handed out to members of the delegations and sold at the White House gift shop. If not, look for them on eBay.

Correction, May 24, 2018: Mickey Bergman is the vice president at the Richardson Center of Global Engagement. A previous version of this article stated his prior place of employment, the Aspen Institute. 

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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