In a shock announcement, U.S. President Donald Trump has canceled the planned June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a letter directly addressed to Kim, released early May 24, the U.S. president thanked his North Korean counterpart for his time and patience in the discussions but said that the "tremendous anger and open hostility" displayed in North Korea's most recent statement made a meeting inappropriate. The letter is referring to a May 23 statement made by North Korean Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui in the state-run media outlet KCNA, in which she threatened to pull out of the North Korean summit and condemned U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for recent remarks threatening North Korea if it doesn't make a deal with the United States. Choe's statement is the second such threat from North Korean officials in the past week. Trump's letter ends with an invitation for North Korea to reach out if the country changes its mind about its position on the United States.
Now that the prospect of a U.S.-North Korea dialogue has diminished in the short term, Pyongyang will likely rely more on South Korea and China to build a buffer against U.S. pressure and threats.
This sudden cancellation comes after both sides appeared to be on track to continue preparations for the summit in spite of heated back-and-forth rhetoric. North Korea's initial May 16 threats centered on U.S.-South Korea military drills, specifically the deployment of B-52 bombers to the peninsula. In response, the United States and South Korea amended their exercise plans to avoid using these aircraft, according to some reports. These military drills are set to conclude May 25. North Korea extended a number of concessions in return: Just before the Trump cancellation, Pyongyang moved forward with its ceremony to dismantle its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site on May 24, with 30 journalists — including South Koreans and Americans — in attendance. Additionally, on May 9, North Korea released three U.S. detainees and allowed them to leave the country with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The costs of not holding the dialogue are high. North Korea's progress throughout 2017 put it on track to attain a credible nuclear deterrent that could threaten the United States; the country reached several benchmarks in its missile program, and even went so far as to declare the completion of its state nuclear force. The U.S. military option of neutralizing this threat could mean massive blowback for its allies South Korea and Japan (as well as China) — and such a conflict could cause massive economic fallout in a key dynamic region.
If North Korea plays its cards carefully and refrains from conducting high-profile weapons tests or launches, China, Russia and South Korea will be more likely to sustain their diplomatic outreach.
However, based on the details of the letter, the announcement of the cancellation does not portend an outright collapse of the dialogue between Trump and Kim. Indeed, the letter explicitly thanked Pyongyang for its recent release of the three U.S. hostages. And canceling the meeting now because of disagreements is still a less damaging outcome than engaging in a dialogue that collapses. Cancellation gives the two sides more time to work out these disagreements before the finality of a summit.
Now that the prospect of a U.S.-North Korea dialogue has diminished in the short term, North Korea will likely rely more on South Korea and China to build its buffer against U.S. pressure and threats. China and South Korea both want to prevent a military scenario in the Korean Peninsula and avoid the continued economic strain of their most immediate neighbors — and they have been working to offer North Korea economic incentives for continuing down the path to denuclearization.
While it is still unclear if the summit is fully off the table, such an eventuality would not be a total disaster for North Korea. If Pyongyang plays its cards carefully and refrains from conducting high-profile weapons tests or launches, China, Russia and South Korea will be more likely to sustain their diplomatic outreach. On the U.S. side, the decision to nix the summit could mean that Washington loses United Nations support for its campaign of maximum pressure. Even at the height of the crisis in 2017, this fragile consensus was hard to sustain under Chinese and Russian criticism that the United States was pushing North Korea into a corner. Now that North Korea has clearly demonstrated that it can be cooperative and come to the table, this U.S. cancellation makes North Korea's argument that it is acting in good faith more plausible.