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Trump’s ‘gamesmanship’ to blame for collapse of US-North Korea summit: experts

Analysts say summit might be rescheduled if Kim Jong-un decided to ignore ‘losing face'

With the US President Donald Trump abruptly calling off the much-anticipated summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, speculation is rampant over why Trump made such a decision and whether there is any chance for the summit to be rescheduled.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, experts said the decision to pull out of the summit is mostly attributable to Trump’s trademark “gamesmanship” -- a maneuver designed to increase his leverage for the denuclearization talks in the event that he returns to the negotiating table.

The opportunity for the summit still remains open, however, if North Korea gives into Trump’s demand by toning down its public message toward the US and shows more sincere progress toward denuclearization, analysts said.

“The summit cancellation is a demonstration of President Trump’s gamesmanship. He wants to maintain leverage and not appear like he is desperate for a meeting,” Frank Aum, North Korea expert from United States Institute of Peace.

“It’s clear that Trump is still interested in a meeting since his letter to Kim Jong-un was very polite and complimentary toward Kim Jong-un… It may require an unconventional act like Kim deciding to ignore any loss of face,” he said.

US President Donald Trump. Yonhap
US President Donald Trump. Yonhap

In cancelling the summit Thursday, Trump told Kim he had been “very much looking forward to” the summit, but eventually decided to withdraw from it because of “tremendous anger and open hostility” coming from North Korea.

He then delivered televised remarks, warning North Korea against “foolish or reckless acts.” He also pledged that the “strongest sanction” and the maximum pressure campaign will continue. The Trump administration is reportedly considering imposing additional sanctions.

Trump, however, left the door open for the summit to be rescheduled. After thanking Kim for releasing US citizens imprisoned in North Korea, Trump said if Kim changes his mind, “please do not hesitate to call me or write.”

“As you know, President Trump has hosted a reality show and run a real estate business for a long period of time. It’s like when the realtor says: call me if you don’t like the price,” presidential special adviser Moon Chung-in told reporters at the National Assembly.

Several hours after Trump announced his decision to cancel the summit, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan struck a conciliatory tone, saying it is still “willing to give the US time and opportunities” to reconsider talks “at any time, at any format.”

In the remark carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, Kim, who had denounced US National Security adviser John Bolton’s reference to Libya as a model for denuclearization, said Pyongyang hoped for a “Trump-style solution” to resolve the standoff over its nuclear program. 

Analysts said Kim’s remark expressed his “sincere willingness” not to break the mood for the summit with the US, as the message was authorized by Kim Jong-un and delivered on his behalf. 

“It was not Kim Kye-gwan’s words, but from those delegated by Kim Jong-un,” presidential special adviser Moon Chung-in said at an event at the National Assembly. “The remark was a refined, sophisticated one -- full of willingness for talks with the US.” 

South Korea`s president Moon Jae-in and his US counterpart Donald Trump. Yonhap
South Korea`s president Moon Jae-in and his US counterpart Donald Trump. Yonhap

Analysts agreed that the current standoff is to be blamed on the failure to control the public messages coming from each other, reigniting deep-rooted distrust built over a decadesold denuclearization process.

In response to US National Security Adviser John Bolton’s reference to Libya as an ideal model for denuclearization, North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan denounced it a “sinister move” to topple the country and rejected any “one-sided deal” to surrender its nuclear weapons.

The harshest comment came from North Korea’s other high-ranking diplomat. In a statement carried by the North’s state-run media, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui accused US Vice President Mike Pence’s remark of the Libya model as being “ignorant and stupid.”

“I think the Kim Kye-kwan statement and the Choe Son-hui statement seriously damaged the trust and hopes of the Trump administration,” Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst and expert on the North Korea military at the RAND Corporation.

“I think the White House was also be upset by Choe’s lie,” Bennett said, referring to Choe’s comment that it was the US who asked for dialogue in the first place. “It is misleading the public opinion as if we have invited them to sit with us.

In order to bring back the opportunity for the summit, analysts said North Korea should take more “sincere steps” for denuclearization -- definitely beyond the closure of Punggyeri nuclear test site, which North Korea dismantled Thursday in the presence of international journalists.

Central is the more thorough verification process to assess North Korea’s nuclear capability by handing over some nuclear weapons and granting unfettered access to its nuclear facilities -- not tests sites.

Bennet said North Korea can demonstrate its sincerity -- for example -- by surrendering five nuclear weapons and closing one nuclear weapons production facility by the end of June.

“To some extent, Trump’s cancellation of the summit with North Korea is welcome news. It sends a clear message to North Korea that anything short of complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization is unacceptable,” said Shin Beom-chul from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

In the meantime, South Korea and neighboring countries -- such as China -- should play a meditation role to prevent Kim Jong-un from rejecting making such concessions out of fear that he might lose face for his domestic audience, analysts said.

While expressing regret over the cancellation of the Trump-Kim summit, President Moon Jae-in Friday called for the two countries’ leaders to communicate directly to rekindle the momentum for denuclearization talks.

“For example, a four-party summit between the US, North Korea, South Korea, and China -- that includes a separate bilateral meeting between Trump and Kim -- could deflect attention away from whether it was the US or North Korea that really wanted the meeting,” Frank Aum said.


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