Donald Trump’s approach to North Korea has always been an intensely personal one—the president contended that his sheer force of will and negotiating prowess would win the day, and rather than use intermediaries, he planned for a face-to-face meeting, with himself and Kim Jong Un on either side of a table.
So Trump’s notice on Thursday that he was canceling the June 12 summit in Singapore was fitting. It arrived in the form of a letter that appears to have been written by the president himself. The missive features a Trumpian mix of non sequiturs, braggadocio, insults, flattery, and half-truths. Whether the dramatic letter marks the end of the current process or is simply a negotiating feint, it matches the soap-operatic series of events that preceded it. Either way, it displays the ongoing conflict between Trump’s desire for pageantry and credit and his longstanding dictum that one must be willing to walk away from the negotiating table.
The U.S. had previously downplayed North Korean threats to cancel the summit, but a statement issued Thursday in Pyongyang was apparently too much for Trump to tolerate. North Korea’s vice foreign minister called Vice President Mike Pence “ignorant and stupid” and said the U.S. must decide whether it wants to “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” (In a television interview on Monday referencing Kim’s aversion to the so-called “Libya model” of denuclearization, Pence had remarked: “You know, as the president made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.” Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program in 2003 and was killed following an unrelated U.S. intervention 2011.) Trump’s letter indicated he had decided against the meeting room, at least for the moment, while leaving the showdown possible.