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

May 24, 2018 by Victor Cha
By Victor Cha
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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Author

Victor Cha
Victor Cha

As a Senior Fellow in Human Freedom, Victor Cha is helping lead an initiative on the problem of human rights in North Korea.  In addition, he is a senior adviser and the inaugural holder of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and Director of Asian studies and holder of the D.S. Song-KF Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. From 2004 to 2007, he served as Director for Asian Affairs at the White House on the National Security Council (NSC), where he was responsible primarily for Japan, the Korean peninsula, Australia/New Zealand, and Pacific Island nation affairs. Dr. Cha was also the Deputy Head of Delegation for the United States at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing and received two Outstanding Service Commendations during his tenure at the NSC. He is the award-winning author of Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford University Press, 1999), winner of the 2000 Ohira Book Prize; Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, with Dave Kang (Columbia University Press, 2004); Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia (Columbia University Press, 2009); and The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future (Ecco, 2012), selected by Foreign Affairs magazine as a 2012 “Best Book on Asia and the Pacific.” His next book is Powerplay: Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia (Princeton University Press, forthcoming). He has written articles on international relations and East Asia in journals including Foreign Affairs, International Security, Political Science Quarterly, Survival, International Studies Quarterly, and Asian Survey.

Dr. Cha is a former John M. Olin National Security Fellow at Harvard University, a two-time Fulbright Scholar, and a Hoover National Fellow, CISAC Fellow, and William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford University. He holds Georgetown University’s Dean’s Teaching Award for 2010 and the Distinguished Research Award for 2011. He serves as an independent consultant and has testified before Congress on Asian security issues. He has been a guest analyst for various media including CNN, ABC Nightline, NBC Today Show, CBS Morning Show, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, BBC, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and National Public Radio. He has a cameo role (as himself) in the action film Red Dawn (Contrafilm, MGM, Vincent Newman Entertainment) released in November 2012. Dr. Cha holds a B.A., an M.I.A., and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, as well as an M.A. from Oxford University.

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