By John Wagner, John Hudson and Anna Fifield
May 24 at 12:47 PM
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President Turmp and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump on Thursday canceled asummit next month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” from the rogue nation in a letter explaining his abrupt decision.
“I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” Trump wrote to Kim in a letter the White House released Thursday morning.
The summit — which had the potential to be a major diplomatic victory for Trump — had been planned for June 12 in Singapore.
Speaking later at the White House, Trump sounded a bellicose note, relaying that the U.S. military is “ready if necessary” to take action against North Korea if it engages in a “foolish or reckless act” and that South Korea and Japan are willing to shoulder the costs.
At the same time, Trump held open the possibility that he and Kim could meet at a later date to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which Trump has been pushing.
“While many things can happen and a great opportunity lies ahead potentially, I believe that this is a tremendous setback for North Korea and indeed a setback for the world,” Trump said, adding that the United States will continue to impose tough economic sanctions against the nation.
Senators react to canceled North Korea summit
Senators reacted on May 24 to President Trump’s decision to pull out of a June summit with North Korea. (JM Rieger, Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)
After an emergency meeting at midnight with his top aides, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he was “very perplexed and sorry” that the summit had been canceled.
“The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and ensuring a permanent peace are historic tasks that cannot be delayed or forsaken,” he said, adding that he did not believe that the “sincerity” of Kim or Trump had changed.
“It is difficult to deal with these sensitive and difficult diplomatic problems with this current way of communicating,” Moon said, urging the two leaders to have direct dialogue.
[Read President Trump’s letter]
Trump’s decision came amid hostile warnings from North Korea in recent days that it was reconsidering its participation, including a statement that the United States must decide whether to “meet us in a meeting room or encounter us at [a] nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
A close aide to Kim unleashed a torrent of invective against the Trump administration Thursday morning, calling Vice President Pence a “political dummy” for remarks he made Monday in a television interview that referred to the downfall of the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
North Korea has bristled at Trump administration suggestions that it follow the “Libyan model” to abandon its nuclear efforts. Gaddafi was killed in 2011 in a Western-backed intervention after giving up his nuclear materials in 2003 and 2004 in what amounted to a relatively quick process.
“I was very much looking forward to being there with you,” Trump said in his letter to Kim. “The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth.”
U.S. and North Korean leaders have a long, sharp-tongued history VIEW GRAPHIC
White House aides had grown concerned because North Korea had not responded to summit planning requests and had canceled a logistics meeting, said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the sensitive issue.
Many details needed to be settled within days for the summit to happen, this official said, adding that the White House did not want an embarrassing situation of “losing the upper hand.”
U.S. officials had begun signaling to other countries late last week that the summit could be postponed, and they appeared concerned that the meeting would not yield a clear result, said a foreign diplomat familiar with preparations.
Pompeo on North Korea summit: U.S. was ready
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said May 24 that North Korea had not responded to inquiries from U.S. summit preparation teams in recent days. (Reuters)
A former senior U.S. official familiar with aspects of the planning said the two sides had not yet agreed on a draft communique, the usually bland statement issued at the close of diplomatic summits. The statement is typically worked out far in advance, and the absence of that draft had been a red flag to diplomats over the past week, the official said.
Trump’s decision came less than 24 hours after Moon, the South Korean leader, returned from a meeting at the White House.
[Analysis: What South Korea’s Moon has but Trump does not: A sky-high approval rating]
Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator with the North, said that it was better to have no summit than a disastrous summit.
“It is true that Trump overreacted to the petty game North Korea was playing to improve its hand,” Chun said. “But if North Korea is not serious about denuclearization as understood generally, it would have been dangerous to hold the summit as scheduled.”
The news of Trump’s decision broke late in the evening, Asian time, and Chinese officials did not immediately respond.
But in a tweet shortly after Trump’s announcement, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled paper known for its strident nationalism, criticized the move.
“The decision of US President Donald Trump was announced a few hours after North Korea dismantled its nuclear test site. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un must have felt that he was tricked by Trump,” he wrote. “Many people would think so too.”
Why does North Korea hate the U.S.? Look to the Korean War.
Why does North Korea hate the U.S.? Look to the Korean War. (Anna Fifield, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
In canceling the meeting, Trump forfeits what had been a largely popular decision to meet with Kim. An April Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 56 percent of Americans supported the meeting in an attempt to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, even though two-thirds of adults said it was unlikely that the nation would actually do so.
The announcement immediately reverberated on Capitol Hill. At the outset of a budget hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo read Trump’s letter.
In reaction to the cancellation, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, admonished the Trump administration for a “lack of deep preparation.”
“It’s pretty amazing that the administration might be shocked that North Korea is acting as North Korea might normally act,” he said.
Menendez questioned why U.S. officials repeatedly raised the prospect of the “Libya model” as a road map for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“I’m not sure that constantly quoting the Libya model is the diplomatic way to try to get to the results that we try to seek in North Korea,” he said.
In recent weeks, State Department and South Korean officials have privately bristled at the mention of the Libya model — first made by national security adviser John Bolton — aware of how sensitive Pyongyang is to such comments.
Pompeo objected to Menendez’s characterization of a lack of planning, saying the U.S. negotiating team was “fully prepared.”
“We were fully engaged over the past weeks to prepare for this meeting,” he said.
In explaining the summit’s demise, Pompeo said there was a breakdown in communication in recent days between the two preparation teams that he attributed to the North Korean side. “We got a lot of dial tones,” Pompeo said. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the North Koreans missed a meeting in Singapore last week between the teams.
Pompeo said he hopes to restart conversations with the North Koreans and get the talks “back on track.” He expressed hope that Congress and the executive branch would work together to increase economic pressure on the isolated regime.
Republicans on the committee defended the Trump administration’s decision to cancel.
Trump had his “eyes wide open throughout the process,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), adding: “He made the right choice” because Kim walked away from his commitment to denuclearize.”
Trump’s letter to Kim brought a sharp rebuke from House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who in a statement called it “a sad example of the petulance and shallowness of the foreign policy being pursued by this President.”
“From the beginning to the present, the dealings with North Korea have been sophomoric and without strategic or tactical merit,” he said.
In a statement after Trump’s announcement, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said it was important for the United States to maintain pressure on North Korean through economic sanctions.
“We must continue to work with our allies toward a peaceful resolution, but that will require a much greater degree of seriousness from the Kim regime,” Ryan said. “At the same time, Congress has provided significant tools to hold North Korea accountable, and it is important that the United States not relent in this maximum pressure campaign.”
Even amid the heightened rhetoric, there were signs Thursday that North Korea continued to be interested in a summit.
North Korea claimed to have destroyed its nuclear weapons testing site Thursday, setting off made-for-TV explosions to collapse a network of underground tunnels where it had detonated six increasingly large bombs over 11 years.
The blasts were reported by journalists brought to the site. But the Kim regime did not allow any experts to observe the events, making it difficult to assess what exactly had been done. Most analysts remain highly doubtful that North Korea is actually prepared to give up its nuclear weapons program.
[North Korea declares its nuclear test site disabled hours before Trump cancels summit]
In his letter, Trump referenced what was widely interpreted at the time as another positive gesture from Kim: the release of three American prisoners into the custody of Pompeo during his visit to North Korea earlier this month.
“Someday, I look very much forward to meeting you,” Trump wrote. “In the meantime, I want to thank you for the release of the hostages who are now home with their families. That was a beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated.”
As recently as Wednesday, Trump did not tip his hand that he intended to cancel the meeting with Kim.
During an television interview that was taped Wednesday and aired Thursday morning, he said he might accept a “phase-in” of North Korea’s denuclearization.
“We’re going to see. I’d like to have it done immediately,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends” on Fox News Channel. “But, you know, physically, a phase-in may be a little bit necessary. We will have to do a rapid phase-in, but I’d like to see it done at one time.”
Trump had sounded cautionary notes about the prospect that the summit would be delayed or canceled. But he also had heralded the possibility for it to lead to lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and had embraced suggestions — made by Moon and others — that he would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Asked about that prospect by a reporter just two weeks ago, Trump responded: “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it.”
“You know what I want to do?” Trump added. “I want to get it finished. The prize I want is victory for the world — not for even here — I want victory for the world. Because that’s what we’re talking about, so that’s the only prize I want.”
Fifield reported from Tokyo. Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, Seung Min Kim and Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.
John Wagner is a national reporter who leads The Post’s new breaking political news team. He previously covered the Trump White House. During the 2016 presidential election, he focused on the Democratic campaigns of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. He also chronicled Maryland government for more than a decade. Follow @WPJohnWagner
John Hudson is a national security reporter at The Washington Post covering the State Department and diplomacy. He has reported from a mix of countries including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Follow @John_Hudson
Anna Fifield is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington, D.C., Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East. Follow @annafifield