Despite scrapped summit, door still open between US, North Korea

Washington (AFP) –


President Donald Trump's cancellation of a summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un dashed hopes for a quick denuclearization deal Wednesday, but the door remains open for talks between the two countries.

The meeting, planned for June 12 in Singapore, would have been the first ever between a US president and a member of the Kim dynasty -- the crowning moment of an extraordinary diplomatic partial-thaw unthinkable one year ago.

The question now is what happens next. A return to Kim launching test long-range ballistic missiles in the direction of the United States and Trump threatening to rain "fire and fury" on Pyongyang?

"It depends on how the North Koreans respond" to the summit being called off, said Lisa Collins, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"If North Korea reacts to this in a more drastic way and ramps up rhetorical threats or even conducts missile tests, we could see a return to the cycle of high tensions that we saw about six months ago," Collins told AFP.

That would only stoke the views of Trump administration hawks such as White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, who have openly suggested that a military attack on North Korea is better than negotiating with an unreliable regime.

"There's an outcome that's potentially worse than zero, which is one in which voices like Bolton use the failure of this process as a justification for ramping up considerations of military options," said Vipin Narang, a professor in security studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

- Restraint needed from Trump, Kim -

Narang says it is too early to conclude that. The diplomatic process could resume, if the two sides exhibit restraint.

Analysts note the curious warmth of Trump's letter to Kim. "I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me," Trump wrote.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who did the groundwork for the summit with two visits to Pyongyang in the past two months, said he hopes to "quickly" get back to talks with Pyongyang.

"The best outcome is that they started a working-level dialogue. If that continues that's great," said Narang. "The process started, the summit is just delayed."

Trump had sought to avoid getting bogged down in low-level discussions, as past administrations have, and instead start off with a top-level summit. That, he hoped, would create a strong impetus to get an agreement from the outset, explained one official.

Kim raised expectations by releasing three Americans held prisoner in North Korea, in turn earning praise from Trump.

- No-show at planning meeting -

But preparations stalled in recent weeks over the goals of the summit, according to Collins.

"Both sides have very different perspectives on what denuclearization of the Korean peninsula or of North Korea would look like," she said.

Washington sought a rapid plan toward a "complete, verifiable and irreversible" denuclearization by Pyongyang.

On the table were economic aid and security guarantees, but only if Kim's regime gave up its nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang viewed that as a demand for unilateral disarmament. Its negotiators skipped a planning meeting in Singapore with a top Trump aide, without informing US officials.

"They simply stood us up," said a senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, calling it a "profound lack of good faith."

"That gulf was not going to be bridgeable by the time the Singapore summit happened," said Narang.

Yet that could prove to be a good thing.

"If North Korea is not willing to commit seriously to denuclearization in Singapore, better to continue talks at lower levels," said Nicolas Burns, a former senior US diplomat.

"Cancellation with a door open is probably the least bad option," added Aaron David Miller, a veteran of Middle East peace negotiations.

So far neither Trump nor Kim have changed their collegial tone with regard to the other, suggesting both are open to suggestions.

But it remains to be seen whether this will persist, without a summit to prepare for. Much could depend on China, which, though an ally of Pyongyang, has been willing to support Washington's economic sanctions to pressure Kim to deal with, rather than menace, the United States.