President Donald Trump’s decision on Thursday to cancel his planned summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, will disappoint some allies in Asia, hearten others — and perhaps put China in the strongest position of all.
Trump’s announcement put the brakes on disarmament negotiations that had been hurtling ahead at an unprecedented pace. Instead of a meeting with Kim, Trump vowed that “our very strong sanctions, by far the strongest in history, and maximum pressure campaign will continue.”
US President Donald Trump has called off a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after a year of ups and downs with the reclusive state.
But applying that pressure depends in large part on cooperation from China, which may now be able to use any delays in negotiations with North Korea to its advantage in trade talks with the United States.
Much will depend, of course, on how North Korea reacts to Trump’s decision to pull out of the talks. After a year of breakthrough missile launches and a sixth nuclear test, Kim abruptly put his nation on a path toward peace — suspending weapons tests, releasing American prisoners and, just hours before Trump’s announcement, destroying its nuclear test site.
It is unclear how Trump’s withdrawal from the meeting with Kim will affect the internal politics of North Korea’s secretive regime. If Kim feels compelled to resume weapons tests and his drive to demonstrate that he can strike the United States with a nuclear warhead, the region will be on edge once again.
But if he refrains, Kim may have already earned enough goodwill among his neighbours — especially China, his country’s main trading partner — to see some softening of the economic sanctions against his isolated nation, without agreeing to give up his nuclear arsenal.
“Trump walking away from the summit lets North Korea meet all its objectives: public recognition, lighter sanctions, damage to US alliances and continued nuclear advancement,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, helped broker the planned meeting between Kim and Trump. Now he is likely to be damaged politically if the talks are entirely derailed.
“Moon Jae-in’s people must be panic-stricken by now because they have invested so much in the Trump-Kim summit,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “At home, they will face a gleeful political opposition who will ridicule them for being so naive.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, on the other hand, may be breathing a sigh of relief. Officials in Tokyo were worried that the talks were moving too quickly, without enough Japanese involvement, and could result in a deal that would benefit the United States but leave Japan vulnerable to North Korea’s arsenal.
President Xi Jinping of China has also appeared nervous about the pace of the talks and the prospect of Kim’s getting too close to the Americans, particularly given his independent streak and past willingness to buck China.
But the cancellation of the meeting allows Xi to use his influence with North Korea — including his ability to tighten or weaken enforcement of economic sanctions against it — as leverage while Beijing negotiates a trade deal with Washington.
“It is in Xi’s interest not only to delay but to have the summit pending for as long as possible,” said James Mann, author of The China Fantasy.
“The prospect of a deal without a deal itself gives China leverage over the US, especially on trade,” he added.
Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing, described Trump’s decision as “bad news,” but said it might allow Xi to act as a mediator. “The cancellation may offer China an opportunity to do something to salvage the aborted meeting,” he said.
Trump appears to suspect that Xi had something to do with North Korea’s taking a harder line against abandoning its nuclear weapons in recent days.
In his letter to Kim cancelling the summit meeting, Trump cited “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” On Thursday, one top North Korean official warned that the United States must choose between encountering North Korea in a meeting room or in a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
This week Trump noted that North Korea had changed its tone toward the United States after a surprise meeting between Kim and Xi in the Chinese port city of Dalian two weeks ago. And he suggested that the Chinese president had egged on the younger and less experienced Kim in taking a harder line, possibly to strengthen China’s hand in trade talks with the United States.
Trump cancels summit with Kim, North Korea still open to talk
“There was a different attitude by the North Korean folks after that meeting,” Trump said Tuesday as he met with Moon to discuss strategy toward the North. “I can’t say that I’m happy about it.”
Trump also called Xi a “world-class poker player,” a backhanded compliment for a world leader whom Trump has called a friend and a partner in enforcing international sanctions on the North over its nuclear weapons program.
But analysts also said they thought Trump was misreading the situation, and that the tougher stance from North Korea probably stemmed more from internal concerns about its own survival than from interference by Xi.
Chinese analysts say China has much to gain from a peace deal that would prevent a potentially disastrous conflict with the United States on its border, and that in the long run might result in the removal of US troops from South Korea.
Many American analysts agreed, saying the North’s recent harsher tone reflected the Kim regime’s concerns about its own preservation, and its bedrock belief that it needs to keep some form of a nuclear arsenal.
“Blaming the Chinese for the change in tone from North Korea strikes me as trying to find a Chinese scapegoat for a summit failure,” said Douglas H. Paal, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
However, some American analysts said China had an interest in at least slowing down any rapprochement between the United States and North Korea.
The United States, by pressuring China on trade at the same time it is relying on Beijing to apply tough sanctions against North Korea, has created an opening for Xi to force the Americans to make concessions on economic issues.
New York Times