After the initial shock, both leaders stressed they were ready and willing to hold the summit if conditions are met. However slim, there still is a chance for negotiation; the cancellation would not necessarily wipe out all the elements of rapprochement and lead up to the resumed hostility.
What has uplifted the international audience to the hope of peace and stability has in a moment turned into a puzzling, radical landslide into a rhetorical confrontation and following tension. On 23rd of May, North Korea announced they would walk away from the summit unless the U.S. and South Korea cancel the annual large-scale military exercise, Max Thunder. This move, which reminded many of Pyeongyang’s records of brinkmanship for the past talks, brought a serious setback to the recent thaw between U.S. and North Korea. Despite President Moon’s prompt visit to the White House, President Trump announced the cancellation of the summit due to the “open hostility” of North Korea.
The round of fiery rhetoric and brinkmanship between the two leaders, even for the ones who might prefer more sophisticated, conventional diplomacy, has its own benefits; it reveals the deep disparage between the two leaders’ perception that had been veiled under the rosy prospect of peace and blurry terms. It seems they have fundamentally different read on what has brought each other to the table and accordingly different starting point. They have drawn irreconcilable conclusions from each other’s decision to hold a summit. As they were bringing those presumptions to the table, the collapse might have been inevitable.
President Trump believes that it was his “maximum pressure” strategy that pushed Kim to the summit. Therefore he believes he is in position of strength; keeping the sanctions and deterrence intact –remember how he recently replenished his braggadocio about how massive his nuclear power is- will eventually leave Kim with no way but to come to the table and surrender to his demands. This interpretation lies behind the curious obsession of the White House officials with the word “Libyan model,” despite its scarce resemblance to the current situation and aggressive response from the North. What they have seen as a success vis-à-vis North Korea might have added the strength to the U.S. pull-out of the Iran deal.
On the other hand, Kim believes that his and North Korea’s prestige in international system has elevated and U.S. is now willing to sit and talk with them face-to-face, thanks to their hard-earned status as a nuclear state. Kim’s legacy and the Juche ideology as the backbone of the nation has demanded him to pursue the international recognition for a long time, and the summit is his offensive to have it confirmed in front of the global stage. Accordingly, it is hardly imaginable that he is willing to trade its nuclear programme away; and they have been clear about this intention. The sharp change in Pyeongyang’s attitude on 23rd proves this point. They are sending a clear message that they have no intention to be conceived as, or dealt with as, a non-nuclear state. They have emphasised this for several times. This includes the recent insult to the Vice President Pence as “political dummy,” stressing the nuclear North Korea is incomparable to Libya that had only been at the initial stage of their nuclear programme.
After the initial shock, both leaders stressed they were ready and willing to hold the summit if conditions are met. However slim, there still is a chance for negotiation; the cancellation would not necessarily wipe out all the elements of rapprochement and lead up to the resumed hostility. Yet, even if we set aside the conventional wisdom in favour of more disciplined diplomacy, there still remain considerable costs to follow this dangerous manoeuvre. First, the inconsistency and tension are wearing out the region’s U.S. allies and might weaken the alliance system. South Korean government has expressed its disappointment and showing possible signs of disengaging from the maximum pressure regime. More indirect, yet equally serious ramification would be that any action from U.S. can put much stress on already precarious non-proliferation regime, especially after its pull-out from the Iran deal and North Korea’s claimed dismantle of Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
The risk is grave enough; rarely has the international response been unanimously attentive and euphoric. The world is watching, and the stakes are high.