Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the planned summit in June with Kim Jong Un caught all sides by surprise. Washington’s key allies weren’t informed in advance.
The US president told the North Korean leader in his letter that he was pulling out due to the “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement”.
The foreign ministry in Pyongyang had referred to US Vice President Mike Pence as a “dummy”. This followed suggestions that North Korea might collapse like the former Libyan government if it didn’t give up its nuclear arsenal.
Is it gamesmanship?
On the face of it, the events leading up to the cancellation were predictable. Inflammatory rhetoric from Pyongyang is nothing new, and Washington had just implied that Kim Jong Un might end up like Muammar Gaddafi, who halted his nuclear programme but was still deposed and murdered.
Some analysts see signs of a classic Trump manoeuvre to twist the process to his advantage. The White House could be trying to secure a stronger negotiating position and force more concessions from Pyongyang.
Others believe the US may have misread the North Koreans. American diplomats who’d travelled to Singapore to pave the way for the summit were stood up by North Korean officials, the White House said.
Par for the course, experienced commentators on North Korea would say. These kind of bumps in the road in the negotiating process are only to be expected.
Arguably, trying to interpret the US president’s moves in diplomatic terms is a mistake. Donald Trump doesn’t do diplomacy, he does deals.
So are we back to square one?
The cancellation of the summit brings with it the risk of a return to the tense stand-off and war of words between the US and North Korea. Trump’s letter boasted that American nuclear weapons were “so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used”.
Analysts fear a resumption in hostilities on the Korean peninsula, with renewed missile tests and cyber attacks by Pyongyang, and stepped-up sanctions by Washington.
However, despite the setback, progress has been made. Top-level contact has been established: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited North Korea twice in recent weeks.
American citizens held in North Korea have been released and are back home – a “beautiful gesture”, President Trump said in his letter.
Meanwhile, North and South Korea are likely to want to continue improving relations, following last month’s historic meeting at the border between Kim Jong Un and President Moon Jae-in.
What are the prospects for more progress?
Despite hints in recent statements of the old fiery rhetoric from both the US president and Pyongyang, both sides have left the door open for talks.
In his letter, Donald Trump referred to the “wonderful dialogue” that was building up. “Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you,” he told Kim Jong Un.
The response to the cancellation of the summit from North Korea was measured. There was no fire and brimstone in Pyongyang’s statement, which praised Trump for having taken the “bold decision” to hold the summit in the first place.
Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan said the cancellation was “very regrettable”, but added that North Korea was still willing to talk “at any time in any form”.
Some analysts say that although the June summit was welcome, there were fears that it might have ended in failure. Unlike with conventional diplomacy there had been no low-level talks, and no objectives had been fixed.
Different interpretations of what denuclearisation actually meant, indicated that things may have been moving too far, too fast. Some hope that in due course, a more multilateral process may start up involving key countries such as South Korea and China.
How have other countries in the region reacted?
South Korea has been left reeling from the US president’s announcement. Only a few days ago, President Moon was in Washington and yet doesn’t seem to have been consulted over the cancelled summit.
The South Korean leader, who has put reconciliation with the North at the top of his agenda, said he was “perplexed” by the move and urged Trump and Kim to talk directly.
Japan, however, appears relieved. Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo understood Trump’s decision, saying it would be “meaningless to have talks that don’t achieve results”.
“The important thing is not the US-North Korea meeting itself, but that the meeting becomes an opportunity to move forward in the issues of denuclearisation and abductions,” he said.
China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, has said the United States and North Korea should show patience and meet each other halfway, following the cancellation. The foreign ministry in Beijing and official China Daily have both noted that the door has not been slammed shut on future talks.