The abrupt decision by US President Donald Trump to abort a much-anticipated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un scheduled in Singapore on June 12could well mean the return of heightened tension between the countries and consequently in the world at large. As it transpires, Trump and Kim are both impulsive and unpredictable.
When the two highly combustible leaders chose to meet amid a lot of muscle-flexing and sabre-rattling, the world heaved a sigh of relief. There were sceptics like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who feared that Kim would back off but yet, the world was bracing up to the historic summit, expecting a breakthrough.
Whether the failure of the process of forging workable ties will lead to renewed tension again, only time will tell. For now, a military confrontation on the Korean peninsula cannot be ruled out if the escalation is not halted.
The tone of the two countries had been broadly conciliatory until there were intemperate statements made by a North Korean official who disparaged US Vice-President Pence and warned of a nuclear showdown if the US did not alter the tone ahead of the summit. Less than 12 hours later, Trump pulled out of the proposed summit in a typical show of bloated ego and misplaced bravado.
Trump made it a point to warn Kim that he oversees a nuclear weapons arsenal that is “so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” But significantly, the US President left the door open for future negotiations tempering his muscle-flexing with a show of regret that the summit had not come about. The North Koreans too reciprocated by saying that it was not all over.
A senior White House official pointed out that Trump’s aim was to remind the young dictator “of the real balance of power,” rubbing it in that Kim was a lesser mortal. Such pin-pricks will continue in the future and if there is to be any tangible headway, both sides will have to go some way forward. Knee-jerk reactions like that of Trump in this case cannot lead anywhere. A lot of rhetoric is for local effect and the sooner both sides accept this the better it would be.
The US side was justifiably resentful that North Korea failed to show up for a key logistical planning meeting with a US delegation in Singapore last month without Pyongyang offering any communication.
Trump and his aides have blamed Beijing for influencing Kim in recent weeks to take a harder line, souring relations ahead of the summit. But the impact of the cancellation of talks will be most felt in Seoul with the recent bonhomie that had been achieved in an atmosphere of perceptible thawing between the two Koreas.
The Chinese intrinsically had a mixed feeling on better US-North Korea relations more so because at present 90 per cent of North Korean trade is with China and any improvement in ties could reduce that share considerably if US-North Korean trade ties resume.
Trump’s decision to call off the summit came on the same day that North Korea announced that it had followed through on a pledge to destroy its underground nuclear testing facilities, though White House officials said the action could not be verified because Pyongyang did not admit international nuclear security experts to the site.
US national security adviser John Bolton’s suggestion, echoed by Pence, that North Korea must relinquish its nuclear programme completely before receiving reciprocal benefits from the United States — a situation he compared to Libya’s actions in 2003 — had inspired fierce denunciations from Kim’s aides over the past two weeks.
Criticism of Trump on the lines that his hasty jump into a poorly thought-out summit process had left the US in a weakened position is bound to intensify in coming days internally. One can only hope that better sense would prevail and that the situation will not be allowed to worsen between the leaders who are past-masters in brinkmanship.