President Trump appeared unconcerned Thursday when fielding questions about his decision to pull out of the historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Nobody should be anxious,” Trump said. “We have to get it right.”
Yet former diplomats and North Korea experts who spoke with VICE News weren’t nearly so calm about the situation. Collectively, they called Trump’s sudden reversal a gamble that could easily backfire.
“Trump just kicked a beehive,” said Melissa Hanham, senior research associate Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute in Monterey, California. “This timing is basically the worst thing you can do in diplomacy.”
Though Trump may think he’s schooling Kim in “The Art of the Deal,” analysts said the letter unnecessarily raised the stakes of a situation that was already unfolding in a pressure cooker. They warned that the move furthers the perception that the U.S. is no longer a reliable negotiating partner, risks pushing Kim closer to China, and, worst of all, could goad the North Koreans into restarting missile tests.
"It is stunning that this crisis is between two nuclear weapons states and we can't forget the escalation could go to that level," said Ambassador Robert Gallucci, U.S. chief negotiator for 1994 nuclear weapons talks with North Korea.
“Slap in the face”
Trump’s announcement cited a recent statement by a top North Korean official calling Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” as one reason for backing off the summit. But the letter was sent on the day North Korea invited U.S. journalists to watch it hand the U.S. a major concession: dismantling its nuclear test site.
Timing the pull-out to the exact moment North Korea was publicly doing Trump a favor looked like an intentional burn, said Katherine Moon, a Korea expert at the Brookings Institution.
“This was a slap in the face against Kim,” said Moon.
Bonnie Jenkins, a former State Department coordinator in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, speculated that Trump’s team may have simply realized the timing of summit was premature.
“There's certainly a case to be made that we were not prepared, and this is a pretext to step back and acknowledge that fact without saying, ‘We're not ready for this,’” Jenkins said. “Of course, we're not going to say that. We're going to make it appear like it's the North Koreans’ fault.”
The big question is how Kim will react — now that the ball, seemingly, has landed firmly in his court. Analysts weren't so sure Trump will get the response he's after.
“If Trump and his group hoped that this kind of tough talk would make the North Koreans nervous, and make them come back with their tail between their legs — no, that’s just not the way they work,” Moon said.
Hanham pointed out that while North Korea just put its nuclear test site out of commission, it still has plenty of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. The looming threat: an “atmospheric test” of a warhead-tipped missile, which would prove once and for all that North Korea’ nuclear weapons can hit the United States.
“Very little trust”
The White House has claimed to be in “lockstep” with South Korea throughout the negotiations, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in appeared blindsided by Trump’s letter, saying Thursday that he was “baffled and very regretful” about the move.
The apparent disconnect among traditional U.S. allies, along with Trump’s sudden reversal further fostered the rising belief that the U.S. may no longer be a credible negotiating partner, analysts said. What’s more, Trump’s reversal comes right after he pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran.
“We were signaling that we’re going to screw you.”
“There’s very little trust, so signaling means a lot,” said DJ Peterson, head of the LA-based consultancy Longview Global Advisors. And through a succession of ditching the Iran deal, referencing war-torn Libya as a model for denuclearization, and finally pulling out of the agreed-upon summit, the U.S. has been sending a message to Kim that he may not get what he’s after, Peterson said.
“We were signaling that we’re going to screw you, we might abandon the deal, and by the way, you might end up dead in a ditch,” he said.
“China could barge in”
Though talks may soon be revived, some analysts pegged one country as the clear winner from Trump’s latest diplomatic maneuver: China.
By abandoning the summit, experts said, Trump left the door open for China to further involve itself in the process. Specifically, North Korea may try to launch a new round of talks with China and South Korea — and freeze the U.S. out of the process entirely.
“China could barge in and throw a wrench into the works,” said Michael Mazarr, a RAND Corp. analyst who’s been studying North Korea for three decades.
“This is a stupid move.”
Beijing might endorse a more lenient deal, said Mazarr, leaving much of the North’s nuclear capabilities intact while effectively opening up North Korea’s economy to unfettered investment from China and relieving the pressure of international economic sanctions.
If that happens, North Korea would have no reason to engage with the United States, and any future threats of military action from Trump would ring hollow with China poised to back-up North Korea in any conflict.
“This is a stupid move,” said Moon. “By pushing North Korea away, in such an in-your-face way, he’s pushing them to work separately with the South Koreans and the Chinese.”
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed reporting.