Why on-again, off-again Singapore Summit is on again?
The on-again, off-again U.S.-North Korea Singapore Summit is at last back on track.
Why did President Trump abruptly cancel the summit? And why it was back on just as abruptly as its cancellation?
The head-spinning twists in such a high-stakes diplomatic drama had confused much of the world.
In his May 24 “breakup letter” to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump wrote, “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
The media pundits and Korea watchers jumped on the President’s statement immediately and prophesied that an aborted U.S.-North Korea summit would dramatically increase the risk of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
“By cancelling the summit with Kim Jong-un, Trump has put peace on the Korean Peninsula at risk again,” wrote Fabian Hamilton, UK’s Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, “with this collapse in relations will come further sanctions and a larger possibility of conflict, as the regime ploughs more money into its nuclear program. Furthermore, if there was any possibility of a trusting relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, the nature of this latest episode in Trump’s diplomacy will certainly have ruled that out.”
Was “the tremendous anger and open hostility” from Pyongyang, or even North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui’s calling U.S. Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy,” the reasons for the cancellation of the planned summit?
President Trump’s decision to cancel the summit was perhaps not aimed at Pyongyang, but rather, at another somewhat invisible player in this high-stakes game: China.
Two days before the U.S. President sent his “breakup letter” to the North Korean leader, Trump, speaking to reporters during a joint press conference in the Oval Office with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, made it clear that Kim Jong-un’s second meeting with his Chinese counterpart had “influenced” the North Korean leader’s attitude to talks with the U.S., “There was a difference after Kim Jong-un left China the second time. I think that President Xi is a world-class poker player. And I would probably, may be doing the same thing that he would do… I am not blaming anybody, maybe nothing happened and maybe it did. But there was a different attitude by the North Korean folks after that meeting.”
“President Donald Trump,” noted Cristina Maza of Newsweek, “called Chinese leader Xi Jinping a master poker player, suggesting that he changed North Korea’s mind about the meeting and China may be playing North Korea and the United States off each other.”
“President Xi is a world-class poker player,” wrote Katsuji Nakazawa, senior staff writer of Nikkei Asian Review, “U.S. President Donald Trump spoke these words on May 22 as he described the Chinese leader’s meddling with the U.S.-North Korea summit. It was a prelude to Trump canceling the summit two days later… Preparations for a U.S.-North Korea summit were moving too fast for China’s liking. China feared that Trump and Kim would become so close that China would not have a say in the future of the Korean Peninsula. China saw a fast-moving train and decided it needed to pull the brake lever.”
On the morning of May 24, as Trump was announcing his decision of canceling the June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un, the President added, “The dialogue was good until recently, I think I understand why that happened,” and he trusted that North Korea “wants to do what’s right” and “we’ll see whether or not that opportunity is seized by North Korea.”
The opportunity was seized by North Korea. Immediately after Trump canceled his planned summit with Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang issued an unusually restrained statement, declaring that the North was still “willing to sit down for talks with the United States, at any time, in any format.”
Then the leaders of the two Koreas took matters into their own hands. Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in quickly arranged a second summit meeting on May 26 to salvage the Trump-Kim summit. In their talks, Kim “expressed his fixed will on the historic North Korea-U.S. summit talks” and the two Korean leaders agreed to “positively cooperate with each other as ever to improve North Korea-U.S. relations and establish a mechanism for permanent and durable peace.”
The eyes of the world are once again on the historic June 12 summit. This time around, however, only the two leaders would be sitting across the table, holding a one-on-one summit meeting, without uninvited guests.
Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.