A planned summit between the leaders of the US and North Korea holds the promise of the best chance for peace in a generation. But it suffered a major setback when President Trump said he would cancel the meeting in Singapore – apparently on advice from the CIA. As Duncan Bartlett explains, Asian leaders are using their diplomatic skills to find a way out of the confusion.

Singapore’s prime minister remains hopeful that he will soon be able to host what he calls a ‘historic and momentous event’ for Asia and for the world. Lee Hsien Loong says he is honoured that Donald Trump has offered to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in his city state in June and has promised to ensure the summit is smooth and successful.

The problem is that nobody – including Mr Lee – knows for sure whether the meeting will take place. In late May, President Trump published a letter stating clearly that it had been cancelled. But in a Tweet a few days later, he appeared to change his mind, claiming that the US was working on reinstating the summit following ‘very productive talks’ with North Korea.

Snubbing the CIA

The way the Americans tell it, they were seriously snubbed in Singapore before the meeting even started, and this prompted Mr Trump’s anger. A delegation from the CIA flew into the city to discuss logistics for the meeting but the North Koreans simply didn’t turn up, according to senior White House officials.

There followed a war of words in the fierce tone of long-fought propaganda battles. North Korea called America’s leaders ‘ignorant and stupid’ and threatened to make the US ‘taste an appalling tragedy’.

In his letter cancelling the summit, Donald Trump wrote: ‘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.’

North Korea later appeared conciliatory, saying it was willing to talk ‘at any time, in any form’. In response, the US decided to keep its team on the ground in Singapore, in preparation for a meeting on June 12 or at a later date.

Shock in Seoul

South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has been a lifelong advocate of engagement with North Korea. He has taken the initiative in trying to break the deadlock which has left the countries on the brink of war since they were separated 70 years ago. President Moon persuaded the North’s athletes and cheerleaders to join the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang this year. Later, he met Mr Kim at the first ever inter-Korean summit on the border between their countries. Mr Moon has been pressing the Americans to talk directly to the North Koreans.

Moon Jae-In has been a lifelong advocate of engagement with North Korea

So there was shock in Seoul when Mr Trump said he would cancel the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un. ‘What is surprising is that the South Koreans don’t seem to have been informed of this decision and this is worrying, given that they are one of the two critical allies of the US in the region, alongside Japan,’ said Jarrett Blanc, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Another meeting between Mr Moon and Mr Kim was hastily arranged on the border between North and South Korea and this appears to have helped prepare the ground for further talks.

Weapons and words

A key sticking point is the vastly different interpretations of denuclearisation by North Korea and its adversaries. The United States and South Korea have a clear goal which is covered by the acronym CVID. They want to see complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of Pyongyang’s programme.

Japan also supports that approach, which would allow observers such as the International Atomic Energy Agency to track Pyongyang’s progress. When North Korea showed journalists the destruction of a nuclear testing site in late May, the explosions were broadcast on television but were not witnessed by any international inspectors.

The US has not stationed nuclear weapons in South Korea since 1992. However, Kim Jong-un believes the Americans should scale down their conventional weapons and forces in the south in return for a compromise on North Korea’s nuclear programme. The dichotomy over what the two sides mean by denuclearisation is the biggest hurdle to the peace process.

Jarrett Blanc from the Carnegie Endowment says: ‘The issue here is not simply about whether to proceed with the talks, which have been poorly prepared. It’s about the way the talks were decided upon. The parties were not on the same page.’


Lee Hsien Loong (l) still hopes to host a 'historic and momentous' summit between Trump (c) and Kim Jon-un
Lee Hsien Loong (l) still hopes to host a ‘historic and momentous’ summit between Trump (c) and Kim Jon-un

Japan’s role

Dozens of North Korean missiles have passed over Japan, sparking alerts on almost everyone’s mobile phone. The North Korean issue remains at the top of the foreign policy agenda of Japan’s nationalist prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who presents himself as a hardliner. He has ordered a review of Japan’s defence capabilities and advocates constitutional reform to strengthen the military’s role.

A key sticking point is the vastly different interpretations of denuclearisation by North Korea and its adversaries

Japan has the memory of having been the only country to have suffered devastating nuclear attacks. To put things in perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. Last year the size of North Korea’s nuclear test was more than ten times that; 160 kilotons.

The Chinese factor

Until this year, Kim Jong-un had never been on an official foreign trip outside North Korea. Now he has held direct talks with Mr Moon from South Korea and he has travelled to China on two occasions. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and Jarrett Blanc from the Carnegie Endowment believes its improved relationship with North Korea has weakened US influence in the East Asian region. ‘If the US cancels the Singapore summit, the Chinese would present the decision as a failure by the Americans to follow through on their commitments,’ he said.

High stakes

Whether or not the summit goes ahead in Singapore, President Trump must now counter charges that he was naive to agree to it in the first place. It is not clear what a successful outcome to the talks would entail or how it is achievable. Can two autocratic leaders who appear in no mood for concessions really strike a meaningful deal? Yet if their relationship deteriorates further as a result of the meeting – or its cancellation – it will inevitably add to instability in Asia’s most dangerous region.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC World Service presenter


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