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5 takeaways from Trump’s decision to cancel talks with Kim Jong Un

By David Lauter • May 24, 2018 at 11:16 PM

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday canceled his June 12 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but he signaled that the two could still meet.

“If and when Kim Jong Un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions,” Trump said, “I am waiting.”

Here are five key takeaways from Thursday’s decision:

— DECIDE IN HASTE, REPENT AT LEISURE

Trump agreed to the meeting with Kim Jong Un almost immediately after South Korean officials told him that the North Koreans had proposed it. At the time, many outside analysts called the decision impulsive and questioned whether the summit would ever happen.

— DENUCLEARIZATION IS HARD

Only a couple of countries have ever willingly given up nuclear weapons after having acquired them. Experts on North Korea have said for weeks that Trump’s belief that Kim would rapidly agree to join that group was unrealistic.

— DISMISSING ALLIES HAS A COST

South Korean President Moon Jae-in had just gotten back to Seoul from a visit to Washington when Trump made his announcement. The decision took the South Koreans by surprise, and they made no effort to hide their dismay.

— DRAMA SUITS TRUMP

Another administration might have waited to see whether the North Koreans would pull out of the summit first, rather than take the blame for scrapping the session, but Trump typically puts a big premium on appearing to drive events.

— DON’T CANCEL YOUR PLANS YET

In his letter and his statement, Trump left open the possibility that the summit could be rescheduled. His cancellation of it could be a negotiating ploy to see whether North Korea will seek to revive the meeting.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

Visit Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Trump’s breakup letter with Kim Jong Un leaves experts puzzled

By Matt Pearce and Matt Stiles - Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Dear Kim Jong Un: It’s just not working out between us. Sorry. Hope we don’t have to nuke you. Please call.

On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump canceled his upcoming peace summit in Singapore with North Korea’s leader with an open letter that veered between sentimentality and threats of nuclear war, leaving experts to puzzle over what will happen next.

“We greatly appreciate your time, patience and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions” about the upcoming meeting, Trump’s missive began.

The summit had been scheduled for June 12, but appears to have been derailed as North Korean officials called Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” for suggesting North Korea might end up like Libya, whose ruler was overthrown in 2011 and ultimately killed after giving up on developing nuclear weapons.

“We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant,” Trump wrote of the summit. The problem, Trump continued, is that Kim’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in a recent statement made a summit “inappropriate.”

So, summit canceled. Trump added a dramatic flourish: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

And yet that rattle of the atomic saber was immediately followed by Trump’s impression that things were going … well?

“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is the only dialogue that matters,” Trump wrote, thanking Kim for recently releasing three American hostages.

“Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you. … If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”

The letter didn’t win any points for style among North Korea experts after its release.

“It sounds like a 13-year-old’s stream of consciousness in a breakup letter sent from overnight camp,” Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration, said in an MSNBC appearance.

“ ‘By the way, call me. I loved you. We loved each other.’ … It is a very strange kind of diplomacy,” she said.

Andrea Berger, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, called the letter “cringe-worthy” and poorly timed, given that foreign journalists, including Americans, were still on a trip to a supposed nuclear site in North Korea when the White House released the letter.

“It’s like five or seven tweets put together,” Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at Tufts University, said in an interview. “In some ways it reads like a college rejection letter: ‘We appreciate your interest, but we’re sorry to inform you … ’ It’s a bit condescending.”

However, Lee thought Trump’s letter showed maturity in his willingness to walk away from a summit where some experts thought the Trump administration might make more concessions to Kim than it would get in return.

“I have to say, Trump today, for a change, he acted presidential,” Lee said. “It was the right move to walk away, because the U.S. really has gained nothing” from engaging in plans for a summit and was walking “into this elaborate trap that Kim had laid for him.”

North Korea is typically the side to walk away from diplomatic engagements with the U.S., Lee said. Now, “for the first time ever — I’m totally serious — for the first time in the history (of U.S.-North Korean relations), Trump has set the stage for the North Korean leader to chase the United States.”

But North Korea might not be the only ones caught off guard. A spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in issued a statement suggesting that the Moon administration had been surprised by the Trump letter.

“We are trying to grasp what President Trump means exactly,” said Kim Eui-kyeom, the spokesman.

Trump’s letter was “clearly designed” to show that the United States is not picking a fight and that the door to a meeting is still open, said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.

It would have been embarrassing for Trump to walk into a summit after Pyongyang insulted Pence, she said.

“A cancellation is unfortunate, but it actually isn’t an inappropriate response in the wake of personal insults,” she said. “It shows that the U.S. will not tolerate typical North Korean gambits of insults and threats before talks are held and failing to show up for a preparatory meeting.”

She said it’s likely that Moon will “hustle” to try and bring the two leaders together again. He still needs Washington and Pyongyang to get along for his own agenda: for inter-Korean peace to succeed.

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(Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Stiles from Seoul.)

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Trump pulls out of summit, says he’ll be ‘waiting’ if Kim changes approach

By Eli Stokols and Matt Stiles - Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In a dramatic diplomatic setback, President Donald Trump abruptly reversed course Thursday and pulled out of his scheduled nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, releasing a letter to Kim that blamed the “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed” by Pyongyang.

Speaking later at the White House, Trump called his decision to cancel the much-anticipated June 12 summit in Singapore “a tremendous setback for North Korea and, I believe, for the world,” but left open the possibility that it could be rescheduled.

“If and when Kim Jong Un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting,” Trump said, adding that U.S. sanctions against North Korea would continue in the meantime. There was no immediate reaction from Pyongyang.

Trump’s withdrawal came two days after he signaled for the first time that his demand for a swift and comprehensive nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea might be impossible to achieve, and that any arms control accord with Kim almost certainly would require negotiated phases with reciprocal U.S. actions and a lengthy time frame.

That set the stage for a summit in a global spotlight that might have required Trump to make concessions and compromises — or even risk failure — rather than the one-sided diplomatic triumph he initially seemed to envision, even encouraging supporters who claimed he deserved a Nobel Prize.

While the White House blamed Kim for Trump’s decision to scuttle the summit, some national security aides had privately expressed concerns that the U.S. delegation and the president himself were unprepared for the intensity of nuclear negotiations.

In recent days, Trump had publicly hinted that he was reconsidering the summit, which he had quickly agreed to in March. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord this month added pressure since North Korea — which possesses a sizable nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles, while Iran had none — presented a far greater challenge and threat.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew twice to Pyongyang to meet with Kim and on May 9 he secured the release of three Americans who had been held by North Korea. Trump welcomed them back to Joint Base Andrews with broad smiles in the predawn darkness, later touting the TV ratings he said he had drawn.

Within the administration, however, doubts about Kim’s intentions deepened after Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang. There was no sign of an outline of an agreement under which North Korea would scale back or abandon its nuclear weapons program, and Kim appeared nervous about his personal safety and about the integrity of any long-term U.S. security guarantees.

White House staff became deeply worried Kim was unwilling to abandon his nuclear weapons — believed to be between a dozen and 60 devices — and take other steps toward a credible disarmament, according to a person briefed on the trip who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

The “delegation came back and realized the North Koreans weren’t serious,” the person said.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Thursday afternoon outlined what he called “a trail of broken promises” from North Korea. Among then, Pyongyang’s team for negotiating summit details didn’t show up for a planning meeting with U.S. officials in Singapore less than two weeks ago, the official said.

“They simply stood us up,” the official said. All told, the North Korea side showed “a profound lack of good faith.”

On Wednesday night, Trump was briefed on the latest hostile statements from Pyongyang, the official said, and he “took it in stride and slept on it.” On Thursday morning, the president met with Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, national security adviser John Bolton and other senior aides and then “he dictated this letter” — every word of it — to Kim.

Some outside experts on North Korea said Trump had overplayed his hand — and folded to avoid embarrassment in Singapore.

“The president wanted this so much that they had to try to make it happen,” said Michael Green, a member of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, who engaged in previous talks with North Korea.

“The problem was the president really thought he’d struck gold with this North Korean statement on denuclearization, and he hadn’t. When Pompeo went to pin them down and came back with nothing, it was obvious,” Green said.

“I think the president is now opening his eyes to what all of his national security team always knew: that North Korea was never serious,” he said.

Christopher Hill, a veteran diplomat who led the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks with North Korea in 2005, said the Trump-Kim meeting was shaping up to be “the most ill-prepared summit in history.”

Hill said he’d seen no evidence that the two leaders had determined what each side was looking for. “All we had was that they’re prepared to discuss denuclearization, but neither side seemed to agree on or state clearly what that even meant to them,” he said.

South Korea and other U.S. allies appeared to get little advance notice of Trump’s decision to cancel the summit.

Trump had warned South Korea President Moon Jae-in, who played matchmaker in bringing Trump and Kim together, of problems when Moon visited the White House on Tuesday. But both leaders were still hopeful the summit could proceed when Moon left Washington, officials said.

On Thursday, Moon had just returned to Seoul when news broke about Trump’s pullout. He quickly called a midnight meeting of top South Korean officials. In a statement issued at 1:30 a.m. local time, Moon called the cancellation regrettable and called for more dialogue.

“Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and enduring peace are historic tasks that cannot be abandoned or delayed,” Moon said. “The sincerity of the parties who have tried to solve the problem has not changed.”

Trump’s cancellation came after days of increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from North Korea that suggested it was having second thoughts about the summit. It wasn’t clear if Kim was getting cold feet and was seeking a way out, or was just testing Trump to see how far he would go.

In his one-page letter to Kim, addressed as “Dear Mr. Chairman,” Trump called the summit “inappropriate at this time” given the “tremendous anger and open hostility” coming from Pyongyang.

He did not cite specifics, but a high-ranking North Korean official, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, earlier Thursday had called Pence a “political dummy” and his comments “ignorant and stupid” after Pence suggested on Fox News that North Korea could go the way of Libya. The official also said Pyongyang was just as prepared to meet in a nuclear confrontation as at the negotiating table.

Libya surrendered a nascent nuclear program in 2003 partly in hopes, never fulfilled, of gaining greater economic integration with the West. Its strongman leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was overthrown and killed eight years later during a U.S.-backed uprising that grew out of the Arab Spring. Although the civil war has largely eased, Libya has struggled ever since.

In the three-paragraph letter, Trump called the canceled summit “a missed opportunity (that) is truly a sad moment in history.” He urged Kim to “call me or write” if he changed his mind, although it was Trump who had pulled out of the meeting.

“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me and, ultimately, it is the only dialogue that matters,” Trump wrote. “Some day I look very much forward to meeting you.”

Trump also added a veiled threat about a possible conflict with the reclusive nuclear-armed nation.

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used,” Trump wrote.

Trump echoed that bellicose tone two hours later at the White House. He said he had spoken with South Korean and Japanese officials and that they were prepared to stand with the U.S. “if necessary should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea.”

Trump also claimed that the two U.S. allies were “ready to shoulder the costs … if such an unfortunate situation is forced upon us.” Both countries already pay huge sums to support U.S. troops based in northeast Asia, but the remark reflected Trump’s frequent complaint that U.S. military alliances are too costly.

Answering questions from reporters, Trump said that “the dialogue was good until recently.”

He said he believed he understood why North Korea’s tone had soured, but refused to specify. In recent days he has publicly blamed Chinese President Xi Jinping for a change in Pyongyang’s approach. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and chief political ally.

Shortly before Trump disclosed his decision to cancel the summit, North Korea claimed it had demolished its main nuclear test site with a series of explosions. Kim had vowed April 20 to close the underground complex under Mount Mantap as a goodwill gesture to show Pyongyang would stop testing nuclear weapons.

The detonations were intended to seal several tunnels and render the underground facility inoperable, although there was no independent way to confirm that. North Korea has tested six nuclear devices of increasing sophistication and power in the complex, near the village of Punggye-ri in the country’s northeast.

Journalists from several countries were allowed to witness the explosions. It’s not clear if Pyongyang will allow international nuclear inspectors to visit the location and confirm that the site is permanently closed, or whether it could be reopened and used again in the future.

The North made rapid strides in its offensive capabilities last year, testing not only its first thermonuclear device but its first missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. U.S. officials say that Pyongyang is not yet capable of putting a nuclear warhead atop one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Trump’s Republican allies were quick to praise his decision to pull out of the summit.

“North Korea has a long history of demanding concessions merely to negotiate,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “While past administrations of both parties have fallen for this ruse, I commend the president for seeing through Kim Jong Un’s fraud.”

Democrats offered a harsher assessment.

“Given how amateurish the rollout and planning for these talks have been, no one should be surprised they are being called off,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“From an impromptu announcement of the summit by a midlevel South Korean diplomat in the White House driveway, to the unhelpful comments by John Bolton and Vice President Pence regarding their affection for the ‘Libya model,’ the lead-up to the meeting has been as discombobulated as everything else in this White House’s foreign policy. But I still hope these talks happen, because the alternative — the White House war cheerleaders using this failure as an excuse to move toward military action — is unacceptable,” Murphy said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he is “deeply concerned” about the cancellation of the summit and urged new efforts “to find a path to the peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

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(Special correspondent Stokols reported from Washington and special correspondent Stiles reported from Seoul. Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this story.)

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

Visit Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Canceling summit gives Trump an exit from an increasingly risky meeting, analysts say

By Tracy Wilkinson and Barbara Demick - Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — As recently as Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that “all across the administration” preparations were steaming along for a historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Less than 24 hours later, Trump abruptly canceled the meeting, citing the “tremendous anger and open hostility” in statements from Pyongyang.

In the end, former and current government officials said, the cancellation may have saved Trump from a meeting in which the goal he had set appeared increasingly unlikely to be achieved and the risk of being outfoxed by the young North Korean leader seemed unacceptably high.

“Although North Korea has made ominous threats that the president had to respond to, I also think the president used these threats to tank a summit that was ill-prepared,” said Wendy R. Sherman, a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, who, as an ambassador, participated in negotiations with North Korea in the 1990s and early 2000s.

With the summit less than three weeks away, the Trump administration and North Korea had not agreed on the meaning of “denuclearization” — the objective Trump had aimed for. Major negotiating points, such as conditions, incentives, a timeline and what kind of phase-out of weapons might take place had not been resolved.

Trump had already given a major concession by agreeing to meet Kim before any of the diplomatic spadework was accomplished. He had also publicly praised the North Korean leader, reversing the harsh rhetoric he used last summer.

“The problem has always been that this process is all backwards,” said Robert A. Manning, a former intelligence analyst now at the Atlantic Council think tank. “Usually a summit comes after both sides have taken certain steps.”

The process had already given Kim several victories, from his perspective. In domestic propaganda, the agreement to meet, and Trump’s praise, had reinforced his well-crafted image as a powerful and benevolent leader. He gained a large dose of international recognition, a sort of legitimacy that the long-isolated country never had, from his two meetings each with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well as the invitation to meet with Trump.

Kim would have liked more — the North Koreans want relief from the punishing economic sanctions that the U.S. and other countries have put in place. But recognition on the global stage has long been a paramount goal.

The North Koreans did make a splashy concession of their own — detonating explosives Thursday that they said had destroyed the tunnels at Punggye-ri, the underground site used for their six nuclear tests.

Longtime Korea analysts, however, discounted that, noting that it resembled a similar move in 2008. At that time, North Korea invited television journalists to broadcast the demolition of the cooling tower at its nuclear reactor to show that it was committed to denuclearization. The reactor was restarted a few years later, using a different cooling method.

Experts say North Korea could rebuild the tunnels in as little as three months.

Even without restarting the tests, Kim can rest on his laurels for now. Until a new summit is scheduled — still a possibility — he doesn’t have to worry about being asked to give up his nuclear arsenal, a demand most Korea experts believe he never had the intention to comply with.

The whiplash nature of Trump’s foreign policy clearly also was a factor in the return, for now, to a stalemate.

The administration “doesn’t understand what it takes to deal with these people,” said Joel Wit, a former diplomat who was one of the negotiators on the 1994 agreed framework under the Clinton administration, but who nevertheless supported Trump’s North Korea initiative.

The administration’s lack of understanding “is reflected in Trump’s public statements and his veering from unadulterated praise of Kim Jong Un to recent statements that have been much more negative,” Wit said. “You just can’t do it that way.”

Despite the cancellation, Trump’s letter left room for a summit to be scheduled at a later date. With that in mind, both sides may decide to avoid rushing to a confrontation, although given the unpredictably of both men, nothing can be ruled out.

If the North Koreans choose to escalate, Kim could launch a missile to prove that he still can. Trump could return to the bellicose language about Kim he was using last year, which seemed to leave little room for diplomacy.

In his letter to Kim, Trump gave a taste of that.

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used,” he wrote.

Pompeo, who was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked what would come next in dealings with North Korea. Several Democrats appeared unsatisfied with his answer.

“I don’t know what to say other than there has been an incredibly effective global campaign (of sanctions) to create pressure on the North Korean regime” and prevent it from being a threat, Pompeo said.

The threat to the U.S. “existed yesterday, it exists today, it’s likely to exist tomorrow and so our process remains the same,” he said.

Some analysts said Trump had raised expectations unreasonably high by speaking of immediate “complete denuclearization” and repeatedly mentioning he might win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Others said Kim was playing Trump all along.

“This is part of their campaign to sabotage our maximum pressure campaign,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former Treasury Department official who specialized in financial sanctions. “Now they’ll say: ‘Hey, we wanted to go to the summit. We even got rid of our nuclear test site. It’s the Americans who cancelled.’”

Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said it would have been embarrassing for Trump to walk into a summit after Pyongyang insulted Vice President Mike Pence, calling him stupid. A meeting between the two leaders is still possible, she said, if North Korea doesn’t continue provoking Trump’s administration.

Pence, on Wednesday, echoed John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, in suggesting the “Libya model” was the appropriate scheme for getting rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi agreed in 2003 to shed his nuclear program, which had not yet produced a weapon, in exchange for economic and trade benefits from the West. But as the North Koreans are well aware, within less than a decade, western nations backed rebels who overthrew Gadhafi and killed him.

Several national security experts in touch with the White House said they did not believe Bolton had been trying to sabotage the summit with his Libya references. But he was working to prevent Trump from acting too impulsively and to keep him from getting swept away by the prospect of a big deal, said a former national security official in George W. Bush’s administration who remains in regular touch with the White House.

“There’s this dynamic, this internal tension between John Bolton, who’s spent his whole career deeply skeptical of negotiating with rogue regimes and a president who is rightfully or wrongly fixated on the big picture,” said the former official.

The biggest loser in the cancellation is South Korea’s Moon, whose statements indicated that he had been blindsided by the decision to scrap a summit behind which he was the main moving force. South Korea had to call an emergency security meeting in the middle of the night when the Trump letter became public.

“In a contest of who can be the most erratic leader, President Trump beats Kim Jong Un hands-down,” Wit, the former negotiator, said later via Twitter. “His unsteady hand has left everyone scratching their heads, including our (South Korean) allies. No one knows where this is going to lead, but it will not be good for the United States.”

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(Demick reported from New York. Staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington and special correspondent Matt Stiles in Seoul contributed.)

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

Visit Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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