Trump had to 'face the music' that U.S., North Korea worlds apart on nuclear deal

Donald Trump's decision to scrap a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may have been a case of the president finally realizing his deal-making skills couldn't bridge the gap between the U.S. and North Korea on denuclearization.

But some hope historic meeting can still be salvaged

U.S. President Donald Trump has scrapped a planned historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press; Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

Donald Trump's decision to scrap a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was inevitable, some experts say, but there is still hope the meeting can happen.

Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies, doesn't think the sudden scuttling of the summit was a strategic move by the president.

Rather, he said, it became increasingly apparent in recent days that the U.S. and North Korea were "worlds apart" on any definition of denuclearization, and Trump's deal-making couldn't bridge the gap.

Trump calls off North Korea summit

5 years ago
Duration 0:51
Donald Trump says he's waiting for Kim Jong-un to engage in 'constructive dialogue' after calling off North Korea summit.

"It just seemed to me that ultimately even Trump had to face the music on this and simply cancel it," Pollack told CBC News. 

"The North Koreans have never said they would give up their nuclear weapons. Never. And it might have behooved the administration if they had paid more attention to what North Korea says very, very consistently."

'Wing and a prayer'

Pollack said it was clear the summit was being put together "on a wing and a prayer," and its collapse was "eminently predictable."

"President Trump agreed to it initially on a very impulsive basis, without any kind of consultations with his immediate circle, without any consideration of the complexities of it and, frankly, with the belief that somehow North Korea could be talked out of its nuclear weapons."

Hopes for some kind of breakthrough deal on North Korea's nuclear weapons program was based on "an enormous amount of magical thinking" on Trump's part, Pollack said.

The summit, which had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, would have been the first time a sitting U.S. president met face-to-face with a North Korean leader. 

But in a letter addressed to Kim and released by the White House on Thursday, Trump said he felt it was "inappropriate" to go forward, based on the "tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement."

While Kim himself had not made any public statements, Foreign Ministry official Choe Son Hui had recently referred to Mike Pence as a "political dummy" and threatened a nuclear showdown after the U.S. vice-president suggested North Korea could meet the same fate as Libya if Kim did not make a deal.

Libya voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and leader Moammar Gadhafi was later ousted from power and killed by rebel forces. 

At least one U.S. official told The Associated Press that the North Korean government had broken several promises it made to the U.S. and South Korea: representatives failed to show up for a preliminary meeting in Singapore earlier this month, and have not returned calls from the U.S.

Meanwhile, North Korea following through on a pledge to blow up tunnels at its main nuclear test site did not impress the White House, with a senior official telling Reuters that North Korea broke its promise to allow experts to witness the  dismantling of the site.

Mike Pompeo reads aloud Donald Trump's letter cancelling the meeting with Kim Jong-un

5 years ago
Duration 2:00
The secretary of state read the letter to the U.S. Senate foreign relations committee, announcing the president's June 12 meeting with the North Korean leader had been called off

North Korea responded to Trump's cancellation of the summit by saying it was still "willing to give the U.S. time and opportunities" to reconsider talks "at any time, at any format."

Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called Trump's withdrawal "unexpected" and "very regrettable," but said the cancellation of the talks showed "how grave the status of historically deep-rooted hostile North Korea-U.S. relations is and how urgently a summit should be realized to improve ties."

On Friday, Trump welcomed North Korea's response, saying, "we're talking to them now" about putting it back on track.

"Everybody plays games," said Trump. The president, commenting as he left the White House for a commencement speech, said it was even possible the summit could take place on the originally planned June 12 date.

"They very much want to do it, we'd like to do it," he said.

'Day and night apart'

Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the conservative D.C.-based think-tank Center for the National Interest, said he's not at all surprised the summit was called off.

"The simple fact is that North Korea, when it came to a summit, wanted to make an aspirational pledge to denuclearize. The Trump administration wanted something concrete," he said, like a timeline or an inspection and verification process.

"Considering both sides were just day and night apart, this was always bound to collapse," Kazianis said.

But Kazianis doesn't think the summit is necessarily dead. Trump himself seemed to keep the door open, inviting Kim to "call me or write me" if he changed his mind about the summit.

North Korea releases video of a nuclear test site being demolished

5 years ago
Duration 0:55
The video is said to show the destruction of the Punggye_ri nuclear test site in the country's northeast mountain region

"I think the Trump administration really wants to have it, but there needs to be some sort of pledges on denuclearization," Kazianis said. 

He said North Korea's reaction over the next 24 to 48 hours will be key. 

"If they were smart, they wouldn't react very strongly and continue to try to do behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get to a summit."

Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general at the UN's nuclear agency, also said he doesn't think the door is closed.

"[Trump] is testing how willing Kim is," he told The Associated Press. "We have to remember why Kim comes to the meeting: the sanctions are biting. They have economic trouble there. I don't think this is the end of the road."

A former senior White House official and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Trump is trying to "play hard to get" with Kim. 

"Don't be fooled," Jon B. Wolfsthal wrote in Politico.​ "Trump wants the meeting as badly as ever, and will jump at the chance to reschedule if and when the time suits him."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press