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Two-Minute Take: U.S.-North Korea Summit Canceled

George W. Bush Institute Fellow Victor Cha, former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council and now senior adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., shares his thoughts on the cancellation of the U.S.-North Korea summit.

Article by Victor Cha May 24, 2018

What does the cancellation of the United States-North Korea summit mean for the United States’ relationship with North Korea?

It means a few things:

There was too much uncertainty going into the summit even for someone like President Donald Trump, who is known for not being big on preparation and ‘winging it’. Therefore, he decided it was best not to have the meeting.

This decision obviously has implications for diplomacy. Some are worried it might take us back to a cycle of the crisis we saw in 2017 when North Korea conducted 20 ballistic missile tests and one hydrogen bomb test. On the other hand, the President’s statement left room for rescheduling during his presidency. If the high-level communication channels created to prepare for this summit are still open, there may be the opportunity for more dialogue and negotiation for a meeting in the future. This discussion is very specific to President Trump because he is the only United States president who has publicly committed to a date and place to meet with a North Korean leader. So, with the work of his envoys like [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and NSC [National Security Council] staff it could be rescheduled. But that’s still very much an open question at this point.

The other thing is we can’t discount the practical reason for choosing to cancel the summit. Sending the President to Singapore is a big operation and is usually planned months in advance under normal circumstances. The absence of any real response from the North Korean side in regards to practical preparations for this summit, I think, was as good a reason as any for the White House to hesitate in following through. Ninety-nine percent of presidential summits are scripted and with North Korea you get much less than that. You are lucky if you get 20 percent of that scripted, which are not ideal conditions for sending a president into a summit with such high stakes. 

What are next steps? Will North Korea continue to denuclearize as a show of good faith?

The South Korean government will be working hard to keep the peace, which they started with the Olympics in February, on track. The other news is North Korea’s destruction of a nuclear test site, which journalists will be bringing back footage of. I believe that is more of a concession to China than anything related to the United States. The Chinese have been more concerned about the nuclear test site which sits on their border, than they have been about the actual nuclear weapons built by North Korea. So, closing that test site, which has been the place where five nuclear tests have already taken place, may be a desire to appease the Chinese more than worrying about collapsed mountain syndrome or radiation leakage.