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Trump Cancels U.S.-North Korea Summit

May 24, 2018
Originally published on May 24, 2018 12:01 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, it looks like the summit is now off. President Trump has canceled his proposed meeting with the leader of North Korea. This announcement came on the same morning that North Korea made a very public showing destroying a very important nuclear test site.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right. For what all of this means, we're joined by NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul, South Korea, and NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe in our studios here in Washington. Ayesha, I'm going to start with you. This was a sudden announcement I think is a fair characterization. Can you tell us what this letter says? This is from President Trump, he's addressing it to the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yes. Well, President Trump, he says that he was - he thanks North Korea's Kim for his patience and his time with respect to negotiations for this summit. But then he also says that recent statements from North Korea have made it so that the summit cannot take place. And he even includes somewhat of a veiled threat, saying, you talk about your nuclear capabilities but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used. So this is coming from President Trump. And so he's saying that because of some of the hostile messages that have come from North Korea that the summit that was supposed to take place in Singapore on June 12 will now not take place.

MARTIN: And we should just remind listeners where that tension has been coming from. I mean, just in recent days, the vice president, Mike Pence, has alluded to what we've come to know as the, quote, unquote, "Libya model." This is - the administration has been referring to what happened in Libya when Moammar Gadhafi, the former Libyan leader, agreed to the U.S. deal, handed over his nuclear material. And then ultimately, he was killed by his own people.

RASCOE: And this has been very - this - the Trump administration has referenced the Libya model. Now, President Trump said they didn't want to do that. They didn't want to decimate Libya like what happened after Libya gave up its nuclear weapons. But he said that that would happen if North Korea did not agree to this summit. And so North Korea took that as a threat. Vice President Pence repeated that, saying if North Korea does not sit down at the table, that they could be decimated or go through or basically destroyed the way - or fall apart...

MARTIN: That the regime would fall, and North Korea didn't take that kindly. Clearly, Kim Jong Un was hearing something in those remarks that he didn't like.

GREENE: Ayesha, stay with us if you can. Let's turn now and bring you into the conversation, Elise Hu. You're in Seoul. Tell us, first of all, what was the reaction from North Korea? I mean, some of the bellicose language in response to Mike Pence that now seems to have led to President Trump canceling the summit.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Yeah. So North Korea called the remark stupid, basically saying that, you know, this was - it was irresponsible by the United States vice president to have these words gush from his mouth. And this was coming at a time where the U.S. and North Korea had a tremendous opportunity to have their heads of state meet and try and make a deal. It was largely helped and ushered by the South Korean president, who has a lot of interest in engagement and had this historic summit here at the border between North and South Korea at Panmunjom just about a month ago in which, you know, we saw all sorts of moments of sort of comradery (ph) between North and South, which have been rivals for decades now.

And so South Korea, for its part, has no response yet. This is extremely abrupt, I think, for the allies as well. So I think we're going to see in the reporting in the hours and days to come just how much or how little coordination there was between the United States and its longtime allies of South Korea and Japan in abruptly calling this off, especially in the way that this letter...

MARTIN: Can I just say...

HU: Yes, go ahead.

MARTIN: I'm sorry to interrupt you, Elise. You just talked about how this is catching so many people off guard, not just on the Korean Peninsula but in Washington, D.C., as well. I was on my way to interview leading Republican Senator Jim Risch, who sits on the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committee...

GREENE: About this very topic, right?

MARTIN: ...About this very topic on North Korea, what we can see coming out of the summit. They had to cancel the interview as soon as they saw this in their inbox, this letter from the president canceling the summit because Senator Risch needed to get his head around this. So leading Republicans, leading members in Congress had no idea that this was coming down the pike. I mean, Ayesha, is that what your read is? How many members of the administration even knew that this was coming?

RASCOE: I think that this administration doesn't - this administration likes to do things very quickly and not always kind of spell it out in advance. Even taking this meeting, remember, President Trump agreed to the meeting, and that was a surprise. He was talking with some South Korean officials, and they told him about the invitation, and he agreed to it that night. So this isn't really unusual. So as quickly as he agreed to it and it was a surprise, and now here you have the meeting being canceled and it's a surprise.

GREENE: Ayesha, I just looked at the letter, and there seems to be some important - I don't know if we call it caveats. But President Trump basically now throws the ball into North Korea's court, saying, Kim, if you still want this to happen, hey, I'm on the other end of the line. Call me. Write me. I mean, that seems to be some wiggle room perhaps. It's hard to figure out exactly what's going on, obviously, in the head of this president and this White House, but they seem to be leaving the door open. And we should say a lot of planning has already gone into this and a lot of capital being spent by this president, this administration.

RASCOE: Yes, this president, he took - President Trump took a risk when he agreed to this meeting. And some people - critics said that they should have hammered out more of the details ahead of time before agreeing to the meeting. And remember, we got to the point where we had a location and a date set. So this really seemed like it was going ahead. And then you had this kind of change in tone from North Korea where they were complaining about joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea and about this talk about Libya.

And now you have President Trump - he does say, if you change your mind, please don't hesitate to call or write. So it is leaving this opening maybe that if North Korea decides to maybe take a more - a less combative tone and decides to do something to, I guess, show that it's serious about denuclearization that maybe this door could be open.

GREENE: Show that it's serious but also almost look like they're begging for the summit to be back on, which might be what President Trump is thinking, that if this is going to go ahead, he needs to see some, you know, some sign of North Korea coming and saying like, please, please do this.

RASCOE: Well, and it seems like both leaders...

HU: And we should point out that...

RASCOE: Oh, go ahead.

MARTIN: Go ahead. We've got a delay on the line that makes all of this awkward. So go ahead, Elise.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: No sweat. But we should just point out though, of course, that it's not just, you know, combative rhetoric coming out of the United States - or coming out of North Korea. So North Korea, for its part, is responding to what's happening from the Trump administration, which is talk of basically ending their leader - right? - and ending their regime from some corners of the Trump administration, the National Security Adviser Bolton and then most recently Vice President Pence.

And so obviously, you know, that kind of talk at a time when North Korea was trying to make shows of steps toward denuclearization, steps toward trying to get along better with its South Korean neighbors wasn't quite the background that it wanted to see heading into a summit.

GREENE: Wanting to be respected, I mean, this - and these remarks, they feel, are very much the opposite of being respected.

HU: Right. That's a really good point, David. And so in some ways, you know, because there was a lack of planning - there just wasn't a whole lot of time between now and June 12, right? So because there was a lack of planning and then such wide strategic differences between where North Korea wants to end up and where the United States wanted to end up, in some ways, you know, canceling this summit is a way out for President Trump and probably one of the better of not-good options on the table for him.

But this is going to be a setback again for South Korea and its president, Moon Jae-in, who was so personally invested in this process, who, as you recall, was just in Washington this week to encourage Trump and the United States to follow through with the summit itself.

MARTIN: Well, and they were high stakes for President Trump. I mean, he had pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and has said that he wants to renegotiate something, but that's going to take cajoling European partners. He has yet to make that happen. In the meantime, he had made what he thought were perhaps inroads on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and now that has been scuttled. So it leaves him with no big foreign policy wins on these two nuclear threats.

RASCOE: And this was - the way that North Korea - when the summit was scheduled and set, it was seeming like this was a win for President Trump, that he was going to be able to show himself as a statesman and be able to do something that he has - as he has pointed out, no other administration has been able to do, that he was going to get this deal. And now that's off the table for the moment.

GREENE: Elise, you've been covering the buildup to this. You mentioned a lot of progress between the two Koreas. Could that progress, do you think, go forward in the absence of this U.S.-North Korea summit?

HU: That's a good question. I think there are some issues between the two Koreas that might be able to remain on the table between the two. However, you know, the U.S. and South Korea are longtime allies. And so North Korea could - you could see North Korea revert to its old position as a result of this.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Elise Hu in Seoul and NPR's Ayesha Rascoe in Washington, D.C., covering the announcement from President Trump that, at least for now, the summit with North Korea expected in Singapore next month is off. Thank you both so much.

RASCOE: Thank you.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.