The Washington Post

In dumping North Korea, the president takes big risks

- Twitter: @IgnatiusPo­st DAVID IGNATIUS

President Trump’s letter canceling his June 12 summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is a coy piece of manipulati­on — flattering and threatenin­g Kim at the same time. It’s like the letters people send when breaking up a romance that hasn’t quite ripened. The words seem heartfelt, even as they stick in the knife.

“l was very much looking forward to being there with you,” Trump writes in the tone of a wounded suitor. “Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropri­ate, at this time, to have this longplanne­d meeting.”

And then the sober warning, responding to North Korea’s taunting challenge this week to “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at a nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” Answered Trump: “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.”

On balance, Trump may have been wise to back away from a meeting that he had seemed in recent weeks to want too much and to have prepared for too little — and to let Kim think for a while about the “great prosperity and wealth” he’s giving up in retaining his nuclear weapons. But Trump, as usual, has chosen a risky course. His letter could produce a renewed confrontat­ion that would be damaging for U.S. relations with South Korea and China, in addition to resuming the brinkmansh­ip with Pyongyang.

“This opens the door for Kim to play a much more complicate­d and nuanced game than we had wanted. We’ve dealt ourselves out,” warns Robert Carlin, a former CIA and State Department analyst who has visited Pyongyang more than 30 times.

The jilting was cunningly timed, allowing Trump to pocket some of Kim’s concession­s without giving anything in return. North Korea said it had a few hours earlier destroyed some of its nuclear test sites. And two weeks ago, Kim had released three American hostages, in what Trump on Thursday called “a beautiful gesture” that “was very much appreciate­d.”

Trump’s open rebuke is a loss of face for Kim. That may be intentiona­l, but as so often with Trump, the disruptive move will have its costs. Notes Carlin: “The letter is a direct challenge. Why did this have to be released publicly?”

One risk is that Kim will revert to his former belligeren­ce, even resuming his missile and nuclear tests. That would be bad news for everyone. The summit and its de-escalation of tensions had been welcome partly because the United States has few good military options if the confrontat­ion escalates.

South Korea’s reaction is another wild card for Trump. The pre-summit diplomacy was managed by President Moon Jae-in and his intelligen­ce advisers. And just two days before Trump’s abrupt withdrawal, Moon had been in Washington arguing for diplomacy.

South Korea faces a series of question marks. Will the North-South amity that culminated in the April 28 summit at Panmunjon continue? Or will Moon loyally follow Trump, even at the cost of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula? It’s almost certain Kim would try to exploit new friction between Seoul and Washington.

Future U.S.-South Korea military exercises, always a sore subject for North Korea, will be an especially delicate issue now. A few days ago, the betting would have been that upcoming joint maneuvers would be scaled back in a postsummit “Spirit of Singapore.” Now, they may be a flashpoint.

On the road to Trump’s breakup letter, both sides seem to have realized that they were heading to Singapore with unrealisti­c expectatio­ns. For Kim, the pointed reference to the “Libya model” by national security adviser John Bolton last week (seemingly withdrawn by Trump and then reiterated by Vice President Pence) was surely a jolt. The message Kim seems to have taken was that his entire nuclear stockpile (and maybe his regime, and his very life) were at risk.

North Korea’s defiant statements over the past week told Trump that Singapore wouldn’t be a walkover; the mesmerizin­g chants of “Nobel Prize” had perhaps obscured the wide gaps in position. Those problems were highlighte­d when North Korea skipped a preparatio­n session, and the two sides couldn’t craft the frame of a summit communique.

Trump thinks the prospect of U.S. investment may draw Kim back to the table. But it’s just as likely that the nimble Kim will decide he has escaped a trap. If he wants modernizat­ion, China may be a more reliable bet.

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