On Thursday, it was announced that President Donald Trump was calling off his planned summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. This meeting was meant to quell the impending threat of nuclear war, but for now, those hopes have been cast aside.
In a letter addressed to Kim Jong Un, President Trump explains that his decision to pull the United States out of the approaching talks came as a result of recent aggressive statements made by the North Korean regime, which Trump characterized as “openly hostile.” The president went on to write.
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 long-planned meeting … If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write … The world, and North Korea in particular, has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. This missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.”
In the letter, Trump went on to praise Kim’s release of American prisoners held in North Korea as “beautiful gesture,” and said it was “very much appreciated.” He also expressed his wishes for Kim and his regime to “change their mind” and engage in the diplomatic talks in good faith but not all the rhetoric within the letter contained overtures of peace. As Defense Secretary James Mattis has repeatedly said in recent months, American diplomacy must be backed by the capability to use military force when it’s required, and Trump took the opportunity to remind Kim about just how much of that force is at his disposal.
“You talk about your nuclear capabilities,” Trump wrote, “but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
It’s likely that the letter was prompted not specifically by a statement made by Kim, but by one made by a senior official within his regime. After weeks of simmering tensions between North Korea and the United States, Choe Son Hui, a vice-minister in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, told North Korean media that her nation may need to reconsider their participation in the talks because of American aggression.
“Whether the U.S. will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States,” Choe said on Thursday. She was spurred by statements made by Vice President Mike Pence and others within the Trump administration that, among other things, compared North Korean denuclearization to a similar endeavor in Libya, which resulted in the toppling of the state government and the brutal killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of his people.
The question on everyone’s mind now is, of course, what’s next? After months of buildup, it seemed tensions on the Korean peninsula had finally begun to wane — and just in time for a rise in tensions between the United States and another aggressive state with nuclear ambitions, Iran. Now, President Trump finds himself embroiled in not one, but two nuclear staring contests that could both potentially lead to significant conventional conflicts, let alone the possibility for nuclear ones.
From the macro-perspective, there are really only three potential ways forward for North Korean-U.S. relations: a new summit will be renegotiated through the chest pounding rhetoric, tensions between the two states will continue to simmer but ease over time, or the drumbeat of war will ultimately win out.
The first possibility seems the most likely, as neither likely wants war. Kim’s regime, full of fire and bluster, must be aware that an open conflict with the United States and its allies would ultimately result in their defeat (barring significant Chinese support). China knows war on the Korean peninsula would result in a massive refugee crisis at their borders, so it’s likely that, even if Kim weren’t as averse to war as he should be, Preisident Xi Jinping would likely exert as much influence as possible over Kim’s state to push for peace. It’s important to note that sanctions appear to be working in North Korea, and they won’t end until an agreement has been made between North Korea and the U.S.
Likewise in the United States, a massive military campaign on the Korean peninsula, particularly amid growing concerns about the state of America’s military readiness, would be incredibly unpopular. President Trump, who is keenly aware of how his endeavors are perceived by the populous, likely wouldn’t prefer defining his presidency with new wars in North Korea and Iran — so despite his tough approach, it’s likely that he’s motivated to seek peace as well.
The second option, in which both states stew in their mutual distaste for one another for a time before making more gradual strides toward a lasting peace is also a distinct possibility. Diplomacy is often less a game of chess and more like a game of cricket: boring, complicated, misunderstood by most, and spread out over a longer span of time than seems reasonable.
The third possibility: that of war (nuclear or otherwise) isn’t off the table, but seems no more likely today than it was six months ago. Neither state wants a war, but it would be a mistake to assume neither is willing to engage in one. North Korea may be significantly outmatched in terms of size of force and technology available, but their fortified position would make an invasion daunting and costly. Despite being the underdog, they represent a hard enough target to meet Trump’s gaze, as Mattis himself said a war with North Korea would be the most costly in most American’s memories.
You can read President Trump’s full letter below:
Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press