Those following the ups and downs of American-North Korean relations ever since President Donald Trump occupied the Oval Office 15 months ago could nonetheless have never imagined the sudden diplomatic fluctuations in the American approach to questions of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula in a 24-hour span, from Thursday, 24 May to Friday, 25 May.
The two sides already agreed to hold an unprecedented summit in Singapore on 12 June, thanks to sustained diplomatic efforts by South Korean President Moon Jae-in who travelled to Washington and held a constructive meeting with President Trump, 22 May.
Based on the statements of both sides, there were no indications whatsoever that the Singapore summit was facing insurmountable hurdles.
But things abruptly changed in Washington on 24 May. In a letter addressed to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, President Trump, in a bellicose style, alternating diplomatic niceties with veiled threats, informed the North Koreans that he decided to cancel the summit till a more appropriate time.
The reason he gave for this sudden shift was statements coming out of Pyongyang, particularly its reactions to an interview on Fox News with US Vice President Mike Pence on 21 May, in which he stressed that what is known as the “Libyan model” of denuclearisation will apply to North Korea if Kim does not agree to denuclearise. Of course, nothing infuriates the North Koreans more than an allusion to the Libyan precedent in this regard.
To mark their displeasure, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement attacking Pence personally, and hinted that North Korea was ready for a nuclear showdown in case diplomacy fails.
According to reports in the American press, the hawkish new national security adviser in the White House, John Bolton, briefed President Trump on the latest warning out of Pyongyang, a briefing that could explain why the US president cancelled the Singapore summit.
While he left the door open for a future meeting with Kim, he expressed his wish never to have to try the massive nuclear arsenal at the disposal of the United States.
Needless to say, worldwide reactions to this shattering news were of utter consternation coupled with growing fears that the world would see, once again, the inflammatory rhetoric that had characterised American-North Korean relations last year.
A rare and historic opportunity to make peace, at long last, on the Korean Peninsula, for the first time since 1953, appeared to be waning. And no one was more dismayed and frustrated than the South Koreans.
The Blue House spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, said that, “We are attempting to make sense of what precisely President Trump means.” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha got on the phone with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 25 May, to try to salvage the summit and ease the concerns of the United States as to the utility of holding it as scheduled.
According to a statement by the South Korean Foreign Ministry, the two agreed that both sides should “devote effort to save the dialogue opportunity”.
Seemingly, the North Koreans were of the same mind. Kim Kye Gwan, a top official at the North Korean Foreign Ministry, in comments published by state-run news agency KCNA on 25 May, said that his country “would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US... to solve the problems regardless of ways at any time.”
Moreover, the comments contained some flattering remarks concerning Trump that show that the North Koreans understand fully well the psychology of the US president.
The comments lauded his decision to agree to meet the North Korean leader, and emphasised that, “We have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision which any other US presidents dared not [take].”
The conciliatory tone of the official North Korean reaction to the US decision to cancel the summit seems to have made President Trump change his mind 24 hours later. On 25 May he tweeted that the summit could take place after all.
The irony in the initial American decision is that on the same day the North Koreans closed their nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
Meanwhile, and in order to demonstrate their commitment to the Panmunjom Declaration of 27 April, the two Korean leaders, President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jong-un, held an unscheduled summit on 26 May, 29 days after their first meeting at the Demilitarised Zone.
The purpose of the second meeting was nothing less than salvaging the Singapore summit. Both leaders have invested much political capital in trying to make it happen; they could not afford the high political costs of the summit not taking place.
In this context, President Moon Jae-in sent an implicit message to the White House as to the chances of success of the Singapore summit.
To assure the White House of the true intentions of Kim Jong-un, the South Korean president said, after his two-hour meeting with his North Korean counterpart, that the latter “once again made clear his will for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and expressed his intent to settle the history of war and confrontation, and to cooperate for peace and prosperity through the success of the North Korean-US summit.”
In other words, President Trump should not harbour fears of failure. In fact, what the American president should be wary of is the unending warnings of Republican hawks and other foreign policy experts in various think-tanks in the United States as to the true intentions of the North Korean leader.
The following quote by Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) is just an example. Recently he said: “Here is what I told the president: North Koreans are going to try to wait you out. They are going to nickel and dime you. They are going to delay. They are going to obfuscate. They are going to make commitments and pull them back.”
Now, it is up to President Trump to decide if he wants to lend his ears to President Moon Jae-in, or to Senator Lindsey Graham and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who keeps speaking of the Libyan model in denuclearisation as the future American blueprint when it comes to the dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.
The road to the Singapore summit is strewn with uncertainties.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 May 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: New unknowns