President Trump threw U.S. and foreign officials for a loop on Thursday with a decision to cancel a planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
While not completely unexpected, Trump’s announcement, declared in a White House letter, has left a series of unanswered questions in its wake.
In the days before Trump’s decision, Pyongyang had issued several threatening statements and insults to the administration, including threats for a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” should the June 12 meeting in Singapore be scrapped.
And the night before the president’s announcement, a top North Korean official called Vice President Pence a “political dummy” and said his government is just as ready to inflict an “appalling tragedy” on the U.S. as it is to talk. Trump, in turn, warned that the United States’ nuclear capabilities “are so massive and so powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
But even after all the threats, Trump and North Korea also hinted the summit may eventually take place, causing even more confusion.
Here are the questions still lingering following the cancellation.
What Happens Next?
In the wake of the cancellation, multiple nations seem determined to get the meeting back on track.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met on demilitarized land Saturday on the North Korean side of the border. “The two leaders candidly exchanged views about making the North Korea-U.S. summit a successful one,” South Korea’s presidential spokesman said of the unannounced meeting.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, said a team of White House and State Department officials would head to Singapore on schedule this weekend to prepare for a possible, newly scheduled summit there. The advance team was already set to travel to Singapore to discuss the agenda and logistics for the summit with North Korean officials, Reuters reported last week.
The administration also might try to repair any potential damage to Trump’s relationship with Moon. Trump reportedly did not give South Korea advance notice of his decision to cancel, even though Moon was in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the summit.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not say which, if any, countries were given a heads up on the decision. “I don’t want to get into who all we notified,” he said while testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. “The White House will speak to that at the appropriate time.”
Pompeo added that the U.S. and South Korea were “in lockstep.”
Is This A Negotiating Tactic?
Trump, known for being a hard-line businessman, has left many wondering if the cancellation is a negotiating tactic to get North Korea to bend on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
The president implied as much on Friday, hinting that the heightened rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang was a way to gain leverage. “Everybody plays games … you know that better than anybody,” Trump told a reporter on the White House South Lawn.
Some Republican senators have also suggested that Trump is walking away from the table as a negotiating gambit. “I believe what we’re seeing is a continuation of President Trump’s tough talk and clear expectations for North Korea,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement.
“As long as the regime in Pyongyang remains economically and diplomatically isolated from the world, I believe that they will be willing to come back to the table,” he said.
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), said the cancellation was a consequence of the administration not setting the groundwork before agreeing to the summit. “The art of diplomacy is a lot harder than the art of the deal,” Menendez said Thursday at a committee hearing with Pompeo, referencing the 1987 book credited to the president.
At the same time, many of Trump’s advisers likely felt he had to bow out due to North Korea’s increasingly aggressive words and actions. A White House official said in a meeting it was a “trail of broken promises that gave the United States pause.” Those included North Korea standing up a U.S. planning team in Singapore, cutting off telephone communications and not inviting expert inspectors to the closing of its nuclear test site.
Pompeo on Thursday said the summit was canceled, in part, because the United States did not receive a response from Pyongyang on preparations for the meeting. “I don’t believe, in that sense, that we’re in a position to believe that there could be a successful outcome,” Pompeo told lawmakers
“I think that’s what the president communicated pretty clearly in his letter,” he said.
What Are The Chances For A Military Conflict?
While there has been much speculation over whether North Korea will respond to the letter with provocation, such as another missile test, the Pentagon has made clear that U.S. military posture has not changed on the Korean peninsula.
“We want to be ready to respond quickly to anything, but it’s not a heightened state of vigilance,” Joint Staff Director Kenneth McKenzie told reporters. “It’s the normal state of vigilance that we maintain.”
Asked later Thursday whether a military confrontation is closer, a senior White House official said there’s “nothing to say in that respect.” And on Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis reiterated that the U.S. military has not changed its posture.
“We are not changing anything right now. It is steady as she goes,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon before a meeting with his Danish counterpart. “The diplomats are in the lead and in charge, and we give them our best wishes to have a fruitful way forward.”
What’s China’s Role?
A number of ideas have been floated about Kim’s second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 7 and 8.
Up until then, Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul officials seemed to be coasting toward the Singapore summit. Secretary of State Pompeo even traveled to North Korea twice, once as CIA director, to meet Kim and pave the way for the meeting.
But, following Kim’s visit in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, the North Korean leader seemed to shift his tone on the Trump administration and its demands. North Korea insisted on May 15 that the United States must stop demanding that North Korea “unilaterally” abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang also took a jab at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, dubbing them an “intentional military provocation,” though the drills happen every year. It’s unclear if Xi influenced Kim’s heightened rhetoric toward the U.S. and South Korea, but Trump made clear he believes that’s the case.
“I’m a little disappointed because when Kim Jong Un had the meeting with President Xi in China … I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong Un,” Trump said Tuesday when he met with South Korean President Moon. Analysts have suggested that China could simply be using North Korea as leverage in the trade negotiations.
China, which represents one of North Korea’s closest allies and remains at odds with Trump’s trade policies, has blamed the United States for the scrapped meeting. Still, China rejects any implications that it could be using North Korea to gain influence.
At an economic forum in St Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan called the cancellation a “brief interlude,” and said it was important for Trump and Kim to meet for the sake of regional stability.
“I believe one of the keys to the peace and stability of the peninsula is the US-DPRK relations, and a summit between them is essential,” he said.
Could The Summit Still Happen?
Despite all the bluster, neither Trump nor his top national security officials have closed the door to rescheduling the summit with Kim.
Trump on Friday hinted that the North Korean nuclear summit could still happen, even suggesting it could take place on its original date. “We’ll see what happens. We’re talking to them now,” Trump said. “They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it.”
Pompeo, meanwhile, said he spoke with Trump before the president canceled the summit, noting that the two talked “about the path forward in the days and weeks ahead to get back to where we were four weeks ago. I hope that we are quickly able to get back to that place, but Chairman Kim will have to make that decision himself,” Pompeo said at the hearing Thursday.
And Mattis on Friday said the administration has “possibly some good news on the Korea summit, where it may, if our diplomats can pull it off, may have it back on even.” Mattis added that, earlier, Trump sent out a note about getting the summit back on track.
“The diplomats are still at work on the summit, possibility of a summit, so that is very good news,” Mattis said.
Trump, too, has said that, should Kim agree to demands for denuclearization, “it’s possible that the existing summit could take place or a summit at some later date.” But that hinges on whether Kim takes “constructive actions” before June 12.
Despite the conciliatory tones, some analysts think it’s unlikely the summit can happen at all.
Joel Wit, co-founder of U.S.-based North Korea monitor 38 North said he “seriously” doubts that the United States will get back on track with the meeting “anywhere in the near future and maybe not even in this term of this president.”
He later added, “I guess anything’s possible.”