President Trump said Thursday that the U.S. will stand firm with grinding economic sanctions against North Korea, after he canceled his highly anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and warned Pyongyang that the U.S. military is “ready if necessary” to counter any hostile actions.
After days of increasingly threatening rhetoric by North Korean officials, Mr. Trump told Mr. Kim in a letter that he was canceling the denuclearization summit set for June 12 because of the “tremendous anger and open hostility” directed at the U.S.
He was responding in part to a top North Korean diplomat’s warning that the U.S. was facing a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”
“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,” Mr. Trump wrote to the North Korean leader.
After days of stinging rhetoric, Pyongyang’s first reaction to the news was unexpectedly mild, a reflection either of alarm on the part of North Korea or an effort to position Kim Jong-un in the public relations battle over the summit. In a statement carried on the state-owned wire service, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan said the North still wanted a Kim-Trump summit and was flexible on where and when.
“We express our willingness to sit down face-to-face with the U.S. and resolve issues anytime and in any format,” the minister said in the statement late Thursday. “Our commitment to doing our best for the sake of peace and stability for the world and the Korean Peninsula remains unchanged, and we are open-minded in giving time and opportunity to the U.S.”
DOCUMENT: Trump letter to North Korea
The developments capped a whirlwind series of high-level, secretive negotiations that seemed poised to lower tensions between the two countries. On May 9, momentum for the summit appeared to be on the upswing as North Korea released three American captives, who returned with fanfare to Washington with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
But soon after that, North Korea stopped cooperating. A top North Korean official warned the U.S. two weeks ago that Pyongyang would never accept Mr. Trump’s demand for complete and verifiable unilateral denuclearization.
The White House also revealed Thursday that North Korea stood up U.S. officials in Singapore last week at a meeting that was intended to set the stage for Mr. Trump’s summit with Mr. Kim. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin and other U.S. officials arrived in Singapore for a meeting with North Korean officials that Mr. Pompeo and his counterparts in Pyongyang had arranged.
“They waited and they waited,” the senior White House official said. “The North Koreans never showed up. They simply stood us up.”
The final straw came Wednesday night when Choe Son-hui, North Korean vice minister of foreign affairs, warned that the U.S. was risking a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” by failing to show North Korea enough respect.
She also referred to Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy” for his comparison of the current negotiations to Libya’s surrender of its nuclear weapons in 2003. Such a comparison infuriates North Korean officials, who view it in the context of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s eventual ouster and death at the hands of an angry mob.
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Aides briefed Mr. Trump late Wednesday night on North Korea’s provocation, and “he slept on it,” the senior White House official said.
Thursday morning, Mr. Trump huddled with Mr. Pence, White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, Mr. Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and decided to cancel the summit.
Speaking at the White House at mid-day, the president said the cancellation was “a tremendous setback for North Korea and indeed a setback for the world.”
“The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth,” the president said.
Mr. Pompeo, testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the cancellation of the summit “a little bit of a setback.”
He said the U.S. has tried repeatedly in recent days to connect with North Korea on logistical issues related to the meeting.
“We had received no response to our inquiries,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Mr. Trump said the collapse of the summit was “a truly sad moment in history.”
Republican lawmakers supported Mr. Trump’s decision to cancel the summit and to keep pressing economic sanctions against North Korea.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, said the U.S. “must continue to work with our allies toward a peaceful resolution, but that will require a much greater degree of seriousness from the Kim regime.”
“Congress has provided significant tools to hold North Korea accountable, and it is important that the United States not relent in this maximum-pressure campaign,” he said.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican and a member of the Senate Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Armed Services Committee, said North Korea “has a long history of demanding concessions merely to negotiate.”
“While past administrations of both parties have fallen for this ruse, I commend the president for seeing through Kim Jong-un’s fraud,” Mr. Cotton said. “Our maximum-pressure campaign on North Korea must continue.”
Some top congressional Democrats accused Mr. Trump of amateurish and dangerous diplomacy. House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said the president’s letter to Mr. Kim “is a sad example of the petulance and shallowness of the foreign policy being pursued by this president.”
“It is another demonstration of President Trump’s treating of critical negotiations as if they were just another real estate deal,” Mr. Hoyer said. “From the beginning to the present, the dealings with North Korea have been sophomoric and without strategic or tactical merit.”
Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “absolutely flabbergasted” that Mr. Trump canceled the summit.
“You cannot have thin skin if you want to make progress with a difficult adversary such as the Kim regime,” Mr. Engel said.
In his televised remarks, Mr. Trump warned North Korea that he had spoken with U.S. military leaders and with allies Japan and South Korea and that strengthened U.S. forces were “ready if necessary” to confront any “foolish” actions by Pyongyang.
In a comment directed at Mr. Kim, the president said, “I am waiting.”
In the meantime, Mr. Trump said, “our very strong sanctions — by far the strongest sanctions ever imposed — and maximum-pressure campaign will continue.”
Top White House advisers said the Treasury Department was considering even more sanctions against Pyongyang.
“The goal here is to achieve maximum pressure,” said a senior White House official. “We’re still short of that.”
The president wrote his letter to Mr. Kim within hours after North Korea carried out what it said was the demolition of its nuclear test site and pledged to work toward “global disarmament.”
White House aides raised questions about that move, too, noting that North Korea backed out of a pledge to allow international nuclear specialists to witness the destruction. Pyongyang did permit a group of foreign journalists to watch the demolition.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said many lawmakers feared the summit would be “a great show that produced nothing enduring.” But he said he hopes there is still a path forward for negotiations.
“If a summit is to be reconstituted, the United States must show strength and achieve a concrete, verifiable, enduring elimination of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear capabilities,” Mr. Schumer said.
Jean Lee, a Korea specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Mr. Trump “wants to walk away first.”
“It’s a complicated courtship,” she said. “We’re seeing the dawning realization on both sides that they’re not on the same page when it comes to denuclearization. What concerns me are the consequences if the summit does not take place at all. Bungling this diplomacy could put the region at greater risk of conflict than ever before.”
Despite the summit’s collapse, Mr. Trump held out hope of further negotiations.
“Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right. I really believe Kim Jong-un wants to do what’s right,” he said.
Mr. Trump told Mr. Kim in the letter that he had been “very much looking forward to being there with you” in Singapore.
In his televised remarks, Mr. Trump said officials in South Korea and Japan had pledged to help defray the costs of any U.S. military action against North Korea.
“They are not only ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea, but they are willing to shoulder much of the cost of any financial burden … by the United States in operations if such an unfortunate situation is forced upon us,” the president said. “We will never, ever compromise the safety and security of the United States of America.”
Throughout last year, tensions mounted between the U.S. and North Korea as Pyongyang conducted a series of ominous missile tests and warned that they were capable of striking the U.S. Both leaders traded personal insults, with Mr. Trump calling Mr. Kim “little rocket man” and the North Korean leader referring to the president as a “dotard.”
Mr. Trump had been marshaling international support for tougher sanctions against North Korea, especially from China, which is its neighbor and main trading partner. Then on March 8, after a slight thawing of relations at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a South Korean delegation arrived at the White House with the message that Mr. Kim wanted to meet Mr. Trump face to face. Mr. Trump promptly accepted, setting into motion the negotiations for a summit.
Ms. Choe, the North Korean diplomat, listed among her grievances the complaint that the U.S. was claiming North Korea asked for the summit. She said the U.S. asked for it; Mr. Trump said it didn’t matter.
“We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant,” the president told Mr. Kim in the letter. “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters.” Mr. Trump told Mr. Kim.
He added, “Someday, I look very much forward to meeting you.”