President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from a plan to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next month in Singapore caught a lot of people off guard, including, it appears, Kim Jong Un.
Every indication is that Pyongyang still wants to make the meeting happen. And as soon as possible.
Pyongyang made that clear yesterday with a surprisingly conciliatory response to Trump’s sudden breakup letter, suggesting North Korean officials may now be thinking they overplayed their hand with defiant rhetoric and by deliberately missing preparatory meetings over the past couple of weeks.
That presents an opening for diplomacy to continue if Washington is still game.
But the question remains: Should it be?
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Kim has lots of reasons for wanting the summit. Sitting down as an equal with the US president would go a long way toward legitimizing his regime on the world stage and weakening the rationale for continued trade sanctions, particularly by neighboring China. It also lowers the chances of military conflict, at least as long as talks are underway, and if Kim plays his cards right it could give him de facto recognition as the leader of a nuclear power.
Trump also appears to still want the summit to go through at some point. But his position is a bit more complicated.
Well before he decided to pull the plug on the 12 June summit plan, concerns were growing that the gap between the two leaders on the most fundamental issues was so wide that the potential danger of a major breakdown outweighed the benefits which might come from simply sitting down together for what would be a historic first.
It’s not even clear if Kim intends to give up his nuclear arsenal any time soon.
The Washington-Pyongyang rift widened dramatically after national security adviser John Bolton suggested the North must unilaterally give up its nuclear arsenal before it can expect any easing of US economic and political pressure. For added impact, he said Libya, whose leader agreed to give up his nuclear program only to be deposed and killed, would be a good model.
One of the loudest voices protesting Bolton’s hard line was Kim Kye Gwan, a senior nuclear negotiator and first vice minister of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
But it was in his name the North issued its response to Trump’s decision yesterday. In a major tone shift, he not only left the door open to more talks, he virtually begged Trump to walk on through.