Game on? After Donald Trump canceled the summit with Kim Jong-un in a letter that cited North Korea’s “tremendous anger and open hostility,” Pyongyang appeared to reverse its rhetorical strategy. Its #2 diplomat, Kim Kye Gwan, offered a more conciliatory statement expressing the regime’s “willing[ness] to give time and opportunity to the US side with a big and open mind.”
This morning, Trump offered a signal that the summit might take place after all:
Does that mean the summit is back on? Not quite, but it will probably prompt North Korea to start showing up to planning meetings rather than snub them, and maybe to keep their rhetoric outside of their borders somewhat more diplomatic than they have in the past.
Much has been made of the idea that Trump canceled the summit to keep Kim from being able to back out first. Savannah Guthrie asked Lindsey Graham on NBC’s Today about that this morning, but Graham scoffed at the notion. Trump told Graham that he concluded he was being played, not just by Kim but also by China’s Xi Jinping, and that he wasn’t going to let them get away with it. “For thirty years, they have played us,” Graham said, and the harsh and abrupt rebuke was a big signal that business as usual is over:
“It’s not if it ends, it’s how it ends,” Graham says of Trump’s mindset on the nuclear standoff with North Korea. If Kim refuses to denuclearize, it will end in military action, and Graham thinks it will happen by the end of Trump’s first term — if Kim pushes it. Graham sees Pyongyang’s actions in the runup to the summit cancelation as an attempt to run out the clock on Trump’s term of office, and more importantly, so does Trump.
That’s why the cancelation got their attention and prompted a reversal in their public rhetoric. As Graham explains, they thought they were dealing with a president that would eventually follow the diplomatic patterns of US presidents of both parties going back for decades. Instead, they may have realized that they were close to provoking a war, which China absolutely does not want in its backyard.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius calls Trump’s play both cunning and risky:
The jilt letter was cunningly timed, allowing Trump to pocket some of Kim’s concessions without giving anything in return. North Korea had a few hours earlier destroyed some of its nuclear test sites. And two weeks ago, Kim had released three American hostages, in what Trump had called “a beautiful gesture” that “was very much appreciated.”
Trump’s open rebuke is a loss of face for Kim. That may be intentional, but as so often with Trump, the disruptive move will have its costs. Notes Carlin: “The letter is a direct challenge. Why did this have to be released publicly?”
One risk is that Kim will revert to his former belligerence, even resuming his missile and nuclear tests. That would be bad news for everyone. The summit and its de-escalation of tensions had been welcome partly because the United States has few good military options if the confrontation escalates.
Missile tests, perhaps; nuclear tests no, unless Kim wants to expose the Punggye-ri ceremonial destruction yesterday as a complete sham. As it happened, the initial reaction was just the opposite. North Korea stopped its increasing belligerence and became more conciliatory, a move which Trump greeted with public appreciation.
That doesn’t mean that the US side doesn’t have adjustments to make. Former State Department specialist John Barry Kotch advised the Trump administration to narrow the public voices speaking on North Korea to just Trump and Mike Pompeo:
For now, however, the takeaway is that loose lips sink ships – and summits.
On the US side, instead of one person or department taking the lead – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have been logical, having previously met Kim twice – there was a cacophony with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Vice-President Mike Pence chiming in with statements that infuriated the North.
It’s not bad advice, but it’s more noteworthy for where it appears. The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong has become more loyal to Beijing over the last few years despite its independent ownership by the Alibaba Group. It’s at least an unofficial mouthpiece of China, rarely running anything critical of the Xi regime. Kotch’s analysis is worth noting in that context, although still interesting in its own right and with some nuggets of good advice, including the one above. However, one can also assume that this is what Beijing wants to tell Trump, in its usual indirect nature.
Trump, of course, is much more direct. He fired a shot across the bow of Kim and Xi yesterday, and at least Kim has gotten the message. Don’t expect this to be an end of the game-playing, but at least we can expect that the White House is prepared to deal with it.
Update: That was quick:
“We will see what happens. We’re talking to them now," says @POTUS this morning about still having a summit with North Korea.
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) May 25, 2018
Update: Trump suggests that the June 12 date could still work:
NEW: Pres. Trump says "we're talking" to North Korea now; "it was a very nice statement they put out; we'll see what happens."
— ABC News (@ABC) May 25, 2018
“They very much want to do it.” Now they do, or at least now they’re publicly saying they do. Stay tuned. As far as the June 12th date, though, that would depend on how much cooperation North Korea offers on logistics. Their track record thus far is poor, but perhaps that will change shortly too.