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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Trump cancels Kim summit over North Korea’s 'hostility'

In a fiery letter, Mr Trump warned Mr Kim not to test the US's "massive and powerful" nuclear arsenal

South Koreans watch a TV news broadcast showing US President Donald J. Trump (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (L), at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea, 24 May 2018. EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun
South Koreans watch a TV news broadcast showing US President Donald J. Trump (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (L), at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea, 24 May 2018. EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun

President Donald Trump cancelled his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” in recent statements from Pyongyang.

Mr Trump’s decision was communicated in a letter to Mr Kim released by the White House on Thursday.

North Korea hardened its rhetoric toward the US earlier in the day, warning it was ready for a “nuclear-to-nuclear” showdown if the US did not follow through on the summit.

“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,” Mr Trump wrote.

Speaking at the White House hours after his letter to Mr Kim was released, Mr Trump said: “While many things can happen and a great opportunity lies ahead, potentially, I believe this is a tremendous setback for North Korea and indeed a setback for the world.”

Mr Trump said he had spoken with Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and the leaders of South Korea and Japan. The US military is “ready if necessary”, he said, and the two Asian allies “are not only ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea, but they are willing to shoulder much of the financial cost or burden” of a conflict.

But Mr Trump also held out hope that the June 12 summit in Singapore could get back on track, or that he and Mr Kim could meet in the future. “Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right,” he said.

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With the summit abandoned - at least temporarily - the next steps are unclear. Mr Trump has said that if the June 12 meeting were to fall through, the US would continue exerting maximum economic pressure on Kim and his regime.

The highly anticipated summit had been cast by the White House as an opportunity to stave off a military conflict with North Korea and showcase Mr Trump’s ability to make progress where his predecessors had struggled. The president has openly entertained the idea that he could have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize had the meeting led to a peace agreement between North Korea and the US and South Korea. The countries are technically still at war.

But Mr Trump ultimately ran into the same diplomatic quandary that has flummoxed US presidents for the past 25 years: the inability to persuade a stubborn regime to give up a nuclear programme that it regards as key to its survival.

The timing of the president’s letter may be an additional embarrassment to North Korea, as the country made a show of demolishing its main nuclear-weapons test site earlier on Thursday before a select group of foreign journalists.

The exercise was portrayed as the destruction of tunnels used for all six of the isolated nation’s nuclear tests, but there was no independent verification that the site was disabled. Arms control experts say the demolition would not impede Mr Kim’s regime from further weapons development.

Mr Trump agreed to meet Mr Kim after the two leaders spent most of 2017 exchanging increasingly hostile and bellicose barbs. Seoul led the effort at detente with Pyongyang that led to the two countries competing together at the Winter Olympics.

In March, South Korean officials visited the White House to deliver a message directly from Mr Kim, expressing openness to discuss denuclearisation. In April, Mr Trump secretly dispatched Mike Pompeo, then the CIA director and now the secretary of State, to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the summit. He announced on Twitter May 10 that the meeting would be scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

Mr Pompeo made another trip to Pyongyang earlier this month where he secured the release of three Korean-Americans detained in North Korea.

With talks on the horizon, Mr Trump shifted toward praising the North Korean dictator in recent months. He referred to Mr Kim as “gracious” and “honourable”, and thanked him for releasing the three Americans.

But comments from his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, and others in the administration appeared to throw a wrench in the arrangements. Mr Bolton drew the ire of the North Korean government for saying that the country’s nuclear disarmament should follow the “Libya model” embraced by dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who was later overthrown and killed in a US-backed uprising.

The North Korean regime is acutely aware of Qaddafi’s history and insisted that its country should be regarded not as seeking to develop nuclear weapons but as a nuclear power in its own right.