James Jay Carafano
The cancellation of an iffy summit does not trigger Armageddon.
The saga of the U.S.-North Korea talks resembles a soap opera with nuclear weapons. But in following the unfolding relationship between The Donald and the Rocket Man, anyone who expected anything other than a roller coaster bought a ticket to the wrong ride.
Today, the whole world will be on spin cycle, as commentators assess the implications of Trump’s letter canceling the talks. But, as was the case in 1986 when Reagan walked away from Reykjavik, so Trump’s letter will likely not be the last word in the bid to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Tit-for-tat name calling aside, the letter reflects that Trump determined the North Koreans were interested in deploying nothing more at the Singapore summit than its usual rope-a-dope diplomacy. That, he decided, is not a good enough reason to hand out commemorative coins. And, so, he pulled the plug.
One assessment holds that the president was naïve from the start, ignoring advice that the North Koreans would never be serious about unilateral nuclear disarmament. An alternative read, consistent with what he has done in the past, is that Trump sees himself as an unconventional statesman, willing to test conventions. He was willing to offer talks to see if Kim was serious about doing something else.
Over the last few weeks, the North Koreans sent enough signals to convince Trump that they were not serious. He opted to put off the talks—until he feels comfortable the North Koreans are willing to do something better. The White House probably thinks this is better than Reykjavik—they have saved themselves a long plane flight.
The question is: what next? Trump’s letter was open-ended. He didn’t foreclose the possibility of further talks. In short, this doesn’t look like a major change in U.S. policy. In near term, we’ll maintain maximum pressure on Pyongyang and leave the prospects for diplomacy open. That certainly seems feasible.