From pitching himself as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize for his bold acceptance of talks with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un, to abruptly cancelling the June 12 Singapore rendezvous, it took US President Donald Trump just over two months. But those two months offered the world the possibility that it could be a less dangerous place. The illusion shattered with Trump’s letter to Kim on Thursday, saying he was calling off the meeting “for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world”. In true Trump style, the cancellation was as abrupt as the decision to meet. Even South Korea, whose leader Moon Jae-in, was the catalyst for the process, was caught off guard. More than any other country, it was South Korea — living under the shadow of the North’s nuclear weapons, and fearful of the prospect of the unpredictable Trump and Kim leading the region into a nuclear war — that moved mountains for the summit and was setting store by it.
In his letter, Trump said he had come to the conclusion that talks were “inappropriate” at this time “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility” emanating from North Korea. But the North Korean statements were themselves a response to remarks by US Vice-President Mike Pence, and the hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton, that the starting model for a deal with North Korea was the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s 2003 unilateral disarmament. The violent end that Gadhafi met eight years later — he was overthrown through US-backed “regime change” and hunted down and killed by his own people — could not have recommended that model for Kim. North Korea made it clear that it would never agree to give up its nuclear weapons for economic aid. As reported by the US press, there were also indications that Trump himself began to have serious doubts about the outcomes from the meeting.
With the Iran deal off, and the renewed turmoil in Palestine over the US embassy’s relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the talks with North Korea were to be Trump’s big opportunity to make history, and appear more presidential and more statesmanlike than he has in all his 18 months in office. But there may still be hope. Neither side has slammed the door shut entirely. The US president has asked Kim to call him or write if he has a change of mind, and North Korea has said it is willing to give Trump “time and opportunity” to reconsider his decision. Trump could not desist from a veiled threat of war in his letter, but the least the two leaders can do now as they rethink their options, is to stay away from calling each other names and sending out nuclear threats on Twitter.