The Off-Again Meeting With North Korea
President Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel the planned summit meeting with Kim Jong-un is not surprising, given the decades of volatile relations between the United States and North Korea.
It’s also not necessarily bad news — if it means that the Trump administration will now take the time to do the preparation needed to make such a high-stakes meeting successful. But it will prove deeply regrettable, and ultimately dangerous, if it winds up meaning that the two hotheaded leaders sulk off and resume the schoolyard taunts that they exchanged over the past 16 months. That would only make conflagration more likely.
In yet another sign of Mr. Trump’s carelessness even with his allies, he failed to consult with South Korea, which had helped broker the meeting, before calling it off. “We are trying to figure out what President Trump’s intention is and the exact meaning of it,” a South Korean spokesman said.
Even under American administrations that brought more time, expertise and discipline to the task, negotiations and engagement with North Korea have proceeded in fits and starts, ultimately ending in failure and greater mistrust. We hope the president can now find a way to continue the dialogue with Pyongyang and reschedule the meeting, as he suggested he was willing to do in his breakup letter to Mr. Kim on Thursday. Late Thursday, a North Korean vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-gwan, said his government is set “to resolving problems at any time in any way.”
Mr. Trump made the right call when he abandoned Republican orthodoxy by pursuing diplomacy with North Korea and, in an impulsive stroke, agreeing to meet Mr. Kim on June 12 in Singapore. It would have been the first face-to-face encounter between American and North Korean leaders since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.
Since engaging with North Korea, Mr. Trump has scored some diplomatic gains. After halting nuclear and missile tests and releasing three American detainees, the North Koreans on Thursday apparently blew up their only known nuclear test site. Of course, having made those concessions, Mr. Kim may now feel he needs to do something to demonstrate that he is not truckling to the Americans.
In his letter, Mr. Trump attributed the cancellation to the “tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed in recent North Korean statements. That anger didn’t come out of nowhere. Even as Mr. Trump was musing publicly about deserving the Nobel Peace Prize, he failed to make sure that his top advisers were articulating a consistent message that would keep his diplomacy on track.
What seems to have pushed North Korea over the edge were comments by John Bolton, the national security adviser and hardest of the administration’s anti-North Korea hard-liners. Those comments were later reinforced by Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Bolton told Fox News that the North would have to ship all its nuclear weapons, missiles and biochemical weapons out of the country, as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya agreed to do in 2003, and should not expect to receive any benefits, including the lifting of sanctions, until the job was done. After surrendering his program, Colonel Qaddafi was overthrown with assistance from American and NATO forces and assassinated by rebel forces. The analogy to Libya infuriates the North Koreans.