A man reads a copy of the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper featuring U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the front page in Seoul, South Korea. (Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg)

Trump Cancels Summit With North Korea's Kim, Citing `Hostility'

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump canceled his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” in recent statements from Pyongyang.

Trump communicated his decision in a letter Thursday to Kim released by the White House.

North Korea hardened its rhetoric toward the U.S. earlier Thursday, lashing out after remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and the White House national security adviser, John Bolton, that had linked the country with Libya. Choe Son Hui, vice-minister of foreign affairs, called Pence a “political dummy” and his comments “unbridled and impudent,” according to an English-language statement from North Korea’s state-run KCNA.

Choe warned her nation was prepared for a “nuclear-to-nuclear” showdown if the U.S. didn’t follow through on the summit. “We can also make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now,” she said, warning that she would recommend Kim cancel the summit if U.S. officials didn’t curb their language.

‘Massive and Powerful’

Trump beat Kim to it, issuing his own threat. “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,” Trump wrote.

Stocks turned down sharply as the letter was released, with the S&P 500 index down 0.5 percent at 11:20 a.m. New York time.

With the meeting abandoned -- at least temporarily -- the next steps are unclear. Trump had said that if the June 12 meeting were to fall through, the U.S. would continue exerting maximum economic pressure on Kim and his regime.

Despite the breakdown, Trump left the door open to a future summit and signaled negotiations could resume.

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

Still Optimistic

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee shortly after the letter was released that he was “still optimistic” the U.S. and North Korea would reach a historic deal.

Pompeo said the U.S. had tried in recent days to put teams together to prepare for the meeting and “we had received no response to our inquiries from” the North Korean government.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called top aides to an emergency meeting late Thursday in Seoul to discuss the developments. Kim Eui-kyeom, a spokesman for Moon, said in a text message that his government is still “trying to figure out” Trump’s intentions.

“We can expect North Korea will condemn the decision in strong terms and cast blame on the United States for throwing away a good thing through its actions,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “That does raise concerns that Trump will respond in a way that further escalates tension to ‘fire and fury’ levels and beyond.”

The highly anticipated summit had been cast by the White House as an opportunity to stave off a military conflict with North Korea and showcase Trump’s ability to make progress where his predecessors had struggled. The president has openly entertained the idea that he could have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize had the meeting led to a peace agreement between North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea. The countries are technically still at war.

But Trump ultimately ran into the same diplomatic quandary that has flummoxed U.S. presidents for the past 25 years: the inability to persuade a stubborn regime to give up a nuclear program that it regards as key to its survival.

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official under President George W. Bush, said in a tweet that the summit “was bound to fail” because the Trump administration “badly overestimated what NK would agree to; the issue was/is US willingness to accept an outcome short of total denuclearization.”

“All or nothing foreign policy w NK, Iran, China trade risks producing nothing or conflict,” Haas added.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, suggested Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the summit showed the president’s inexperience.

“The art of diplomacy is a lot harder than the art of the deal,” Menendez said in a statement. “The reality is that it is pretty amazing that the administration might be shocked that North Korea might be acting the way North Korea might normally act.”

The timing of the president’s letter may be an additional embarrassment to North Korea, as the country made a show of demolishing its main nuclear-weapons test site earlier on Thursday before a select group of foreign journalists.

The exercise was portrayed as the destruction of tunnels used for all six of the isolated nation’s nuclear tests, but there was no independent verification that the site was disabled. Arms control experts say the demolition wouldn’t impede Kim’s regime for further weapons development.

Olympic Detente

In a spate of rapid-fire diplomacy, Trump agreed to meet Kim after the two leaders spent most of 2017 exchanging increasingly hostile and bellicose barbs. Seoul led the effort at detente with Pyongyang that resulted in the two countries competing together at the Winter Olympics.

In March, South Korean officials visited the White House to deliver a message directly from Kim, expressing openness to discuss denuclearization. Over the Easter holiday, Trump secretly dispatched Pompeo, then the CIA director and now the secretary of state, to Pyongyang to lay groundwork for the summit. Trump announced on Twitter May 10 that the meeting would be scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

Pompeo made another trip to Pyongyang earlier this month where he secured the release of three Korean-Americans Kim’s regime had detained.

With talks on the horizon, Trump shifted toward praising the North Korean dictator in recent months. Trump referred to Kim as “gracious” and “honorable,” and thanked him for releasing the three Americans.

But comments from his national security adviser, Bolton, and others in the administration appeared to throw a wrench in the arrangements. Bolton drew the ire of the North Korean government for saying that the country’s nuclear disarmament should follow the “Libya model” embraced by dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who was later overthrown and killed in the streets during an uprising backed by Western powers.

The North Korean regime is acutely aware of Qaddafi’s history, and insisted that its country should be regarded not as seeking to develop nuclear weapons but as a nuclear power in its own right.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.