Hopes for a historic peace deal collapsed Thursday when President Trump canceled his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing the “tremendous anger and open hostility” of recent North Korean rhetoric.
From the outset, the prospect of a high-stakes face-to-face between these leaders had reinvigorated diplomacy — creating space for high-level talks, smoothing the release of US hostages, and generally substituting planning for bluster.
With the summit abandoned, at least for now, there’s a risk these goodwill-enhancing and relationship-improving steps might be lost, too. That could force the countries back to the dangerous dynamics of 2017, when Kim was testing ever more powerful missiles while Trump issued escalating military threats.
At one point last fall, war between the United States and North Korea seemed like a very real possibility, with some well-respected diplomats putting the odds between 20 and 50 percent. And this despite the widely acknowledged reality that even a conventional war on the Korean peninsula could kill hundreds of thousands, and a nuclear war potentially millions.
Trump’s letter to Kim — in which he announced his intention to pull out of the June meeting — is carefully crafted, light on recrimination, and full of regret that so great an opportunity should have been missed.
But these are just the first public words. As yet, the North Korean response remains unclear. And in recent days, several members of Trump’s administration — including the president himself — had already begun issuing veiled threats, suggesting that in the absence of a deal, the North Korean regime could end up like Libya’s Moammar Khadafy, driven from power by American bombs.
There would seem to be a lot of room for middle ground, between the antipodal prospects of a peacemaking summit or a catastrophic war. But under Trump as under President Obama, the United States has struggled to find a workable strategy.
North Korea is already subject to strict economic sanctions. We might hope to tighten those screws even further, but that requires cooperation from Russia and China, North Korea’s key trading partners. And relations with those countries are at a low ebb, with China shadowed by threats of a US trade war and Russia on notice for a whole range of disputes, from Ukraine to Syria and the whole collusion-and-electoral-interference problem.
Even longtime ally South Korea seems to be pursuing its own path. Recent weeks have witnessed not only a dramatic meeting between Kim and South Korea’s president Moon Jae In in the demilitarized zone but also some early talk about whether a unified Korea would even need security support from the United States.
Optimists may yet hope that Kim will continue to moderate his behavior despite the summit’s cancellation, limiting his missile tests or even shuttering some nuclear facilities (like the already-damaged test site he seems to have demolished earlier this week). Rapprochement with the South might be cause enough, and that would allow the United States to make a second diplomatic push.
Or it could be that Trump is still negotiating, pulling out of this one summit to improve his bargaining position and secure the best possible deal at some future meeting.
But it seems most likely that the post-summit era of US-North Korea relations will end up looking menacingly like the pre-summit era, with Kim and Trump exchanging belligerent threats and the world crossing its fingers in hopes of avoiding outright war.Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.