It wasn't so long ago that all seemed strangely rosy between the United States and North Korea. After exchanging threats, President Trump and Kim Jong-un agreed to meet in Singapore to discuss a peace agreement. The former announced he would dismantle a nuclear test site, which Trump called a "very smart and gracious gesture." Three American detainees were returned to the United States. Republicans called for their president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The White House released a coin to commemorate the historic occasion. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, just about everything. After a week of escalating tensions following an abrupt reversal of tone from North Korea, President Trump on Thursday sent a letter to Kim Jong-un canceling the summit.
Sadly, I was forced to cancel the Summit Meeting in Singapore with Kim Jung Un. pic.twitter.com/qEoi9ymUEz— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 24, 2018
"Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting," Trump wrote.
The relationship began to deteriorate last week, when North Korea released a memo explaining that the nation was not willing to denuclearize in exchange for sanctions relief. The memo also described a "feeling of repugnance" toward National Security Adviser John Bolton, who had repeatedly called for North Korea to denuclearize entirely, citing the agreement the United States reached with Libya in 2003.
Several outlets reported that Trump was angered and confused by the news, and that the president spent the weekend discussing with aides whether it might not be a good idea to go through with the summit at all. The New York Times noted the president was "increasingly concerned" the meeting could be a "political embarrassment," while CNN reported that "some of the president's advisers privately say the chances of the talks occurring grew slimmer."
On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence appeared on Fox News to discuss the issue, noting that North Korea could end up like Libya if a deal is not struck.
"There was some talk about the Libyan model last week, and 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," Pence said. When it was mentioned that this could be construed as a threat, Pence said: "Well, I think it's more of a fact."
After agreeing to denuclearize in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed by the United States and its allies in 2011. Bolton had repeatedly called for a similar agreement with North Korea, despite North Korea having fiercely criticized Libya for agreeing to denuclearize after Gaddafi's death.
Trump met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Washington the following day to discuss the summit, but it doesn't appear Moon was able to convince the president that North Korea would be receptive to the administration's demands. Speaking to reporters with the South Korean leader at his side, Trump publicly expressed doubt the meeting would take place. "It may not work out for June 12th," Trump said. "If it doesn't happen, maybe it will happen later."
On Thursday morning, Kim made good on his promise to dismantle the site, staging a demolition spectacle in front of a group of international reporters. Several components of the site Punggye-ri in northern North Korea were destroyed with explosives, and although some hailed this as a major step toward denuclearization, others equated the gesture to nothing more than a means of destroying evidence. "The North Koreans have conducted all these tests here, every single weapons test, so if they let experts in to look at these tunnels before they let anyone else in, that would be potentially for us an intelligence boon," Bruce Bechtol, a political science professor who has written several books on North Korea, told CNN. Journalists who attempted to bring in equipment to measure the radiation of the wreckage had their tools confiscated.
But more consequential than the demolition was a statement released the same morning by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, who was none too pleased with the comments made earlier in the week by Vice President Pence. "As a person involved in the U.S. affairs, I cannot suppress my surprise at such ignorant and stupid remarks gushing out from the mouth of the U.S. vice president," Choe said. "In case the U.S. offends against our good will and clings to unlawful and outrageous acts, I will put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the D.P.R.K.-U.S. summit."
Choe also suggested that North Korea is ready to go to war with the United States if the June 12th meeting should fall through. "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.”
Now that meeting has fallen through, and Trump is once again touting America's nuclear capabilities. "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."