Trump Leaves the Door Open for Another North Korea Summit

    Patrick M. Cronin, Abigail C. Grace

    Security, Asia

    U.S. Vice President Mike Pence looks on as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks before the signing ceremony for S. 2155 - Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington

    While the prospect for immediate diplomacy remains unlikely, Trump did leave Kim with space to maneuver and salvage the situation. 

    The Trump administration’s announcement that they will postpone the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled that they are committed to a good deal for the United States, or no deal at all. Trump’s letter to Kim made it clear that he was disappointed by North Korea’s recent actions and words—including Pyongyang’s earlier promise to allow experts to gather forensic evidence at today’s demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

    Driving President Trump to the brink were recent comments from North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, a long-time U.S. interlocutor who claimed that, “Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.” Her statement also cited Vice President Pence and National Security Advisor Bolton’s recent comments on the Libya model as drivers for North Korea’s recent uptick in sharp rhetoric.

    However, critics mistake symptoms for underlying causes when they blame Ambassador Bolton or Vice President Pence for their references to the “Libya model” of denuclearization. Secretary Pompeo’s testimony that the North Koreans were unwilling to engage in serious preparations reinforces the argument that the North Koreans themselves were not yet ready to discuss the future of their nuclear program.

    Furthermore, North Korea’s recent actions lay bare Kim’s long-standing intention to retain his arsenal while removing sanctions, and pursuing economic investment and normalization. Perhaps Kim was always willing to walk away from what he considered a bad deal—namely, one that would require complete and real denuclearization. Pyongyang’s actions are manifestations of the two side’s disparate negotiating positions. This is very different from claiming that North Korea’s actions are the main reason for the postponement of top-level talks.

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