Analyzing Trump’s Withdrawal from the U.S.-DPRK Summit By Jun Kwon
After much anticipation by the world, President Trump killed any hopes of a U.S.-DPRK Summit that was supposed to occur on June 12th, 2018. The decision to cancel the meeting is very disappointing and may turn the situation of the Korean peninsula back to the very familiar scene of animosity and tension.
In reading his open letter to Kim Jong Un, the immediate cause to force Mr. Trump to cancel the summit was “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” He seemed to have referred to the statement released a day before in the name of North Korean vice-foreign minister Choe Son Hui.
Choe’s statement describes Vice President Pence as a “political dummy” in response to his comparison of North Korea to Libya. It also repeated the hostile warning with the threatening rhetoric that “We can also make the US taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now.”
Is Choe’s statement a real reason behind the cancellation of this long-planned and much anticipated summit? There are several considerations that suggest we should not take Mr. Trump’s explanation at face value.
First, the statement came after Mike Pence said that “There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and you know, as the President made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.”
This position is in line with previous comments made by Mr. Bolton. The comparison that North Korea might end like Libya was clearly interpreted as a threat by the Kim regime. Yet despite the hostile and fiery rhetoric, the statement did not directly target President Trump and stated that North Korea was still very much interested in the summit.
Secondly, war of words between the U.S. and North Korea are nothing new. A test of nerves between states leading up to high-level or summit meetings is common to gain the upper hand on the negotiations while behind-the-scenes negotiations unfold.
If war of words were an issue to get the summit derailed, the summit could not and would not, have been scheduled in the first place. More possible is that President Trump may have sought a pretext to cancel the summit even though he outwardly claimed that he was looking forward to it.
Thirdly, there have been some positive signs from both Koreas regarding the summit. North Korea displayed a gesture of its good will and sincerity to the summit by releasing three American detainees and dismantling its only known nuclear test site with the presence of the international journalists, just prior right to Trump’s cancellation letter.
In addition, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who has strongly supported the Trump-Kim summit, traveled to the White House this week to convince Mr. Trump that the summit would be a remarkable step forward to bring peace and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
What really forced him to pull out of the summit?
It is entirely possible that the Trump went off script to withdraw from the summit. At the same time, the underlying cause of the summit cancellation could be found in the framework of the U.S. hegemonic goal to maintain its influence and preponderance in East Asia.
The patterns of the U.S. global strategy have clearly shown that the U.S. has created and enjoyed a moderate level of tension as a justification of the U.S. power by selecting enemy states in every continent of the world which usually meet three necessary conditions: 1) evil states to violate human rights, 2) isolated from the American-led liberal economic order, and 3) the enemies of the U.S. alliance partners. Notable examples of this include North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and so on.
In this regard, keeping tension with North Korea could serve as a valuable asset to the U.S. hegemonic goal as it provides American presence with a raison d’etre in East Asia. The presence of the American influence in East Asia also acts as a means to contain the geopolitical and military expansion of China in the region.
The United States’ withdrawal from the summit is similar in nature to its withdrawal from the Iran Deal. Iran shares many similarities with North Korea. Both are authoritarian regimes and are perceived as threats by regional American allies. Since 1979, Iran’s regime has given the United States a reason to maintain their troops in the Gulf States. The perception of the Iranian threat has forced Israel and the Gulf States to rely on the United States for security assurances.
Ultimately, the United States pulled out of the summit with North Korea because it wishes to reignite and maintain tensions in the region forcing its allies to come closer to it and holding Chinese growing power in check.
For the most part, the ramifications of Trump’s actions are similar to those of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran Deal. North Korea would now have less reason to abandon their nuclear weapons program. North Korea can now use the excuse that it was the U.S. side to cancel the summit despite its sincere pursuit and active efforts for the talks with the U.S.
Secondly, the United States’ relationship with South Korea will be more distant. President Moon Jae-in’s most important agenda is peace with North Korea. As a reliable mediator, President Moon has hoped and expected Mr. Trump to show respect to his effort as an equal partner of the alliance. Trump’s unilateral and sudden withdrawal from the summit deeply damages any form of trust South Korea has towards Trump administration as a party in negotiating peace with North Korea.
Thirdly, the United States’ already damaged prestige and trust will be further defiled by this action. Traditionally, North Korea has been seen as the reneging party over deals regarding its nuclear program. Considering that the United States has already pulled out of the Iran Deal, while at the same time alienated many nations due to Trump’s rhetoric, this would further diminish the U.S. trust and reputation in any international negotiations.
Nonetheless, there is some hope that President Trump will reconsider the summit with Mr. Kim. Despite the U.S. unilateral announcement of the cancellation of the summit, North Korea’s response is surprisingly hopeful and positive with conciliatory tones. The statement issued in the name of Kim Kye Gwan, first vice-minister of Foreign Affairs of the DPRK reflects this.
North Korea is once again offering an olive branch to the United States. Only time will tell whether President Trump will take it.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College.