During a White House press conference on Tuesday, President Donald Trump complained about how North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had changed his attitude after a secretive meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early May.
Was China behind the cancellation of the Trump-Kim summit?
Two days later, Trump shocked the world by calling off the much-anticipated meeting with Kim, originally scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12.
“It was incredibly awkward and uncomfortable… It was really a surreal moment” @willripleyCNN recounts the moment he broke the news to the North Koreans that Trump had withdrawn from a planned summit with Kim Kim Jong Un https://t.co/zhZ2vM59G1 https://t.co/ZcVivTdLkc— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) May 25, 2018
The cancellation came at a particularly awkward time, as North Korea had hours earlier blown up its only nuclear test site in Punggye-ri.
In response to the cancellation of the summit, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the dialogue was a “historic opportunity,” calling both North Korea and the US to cherish the progress made in promoting the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Quoting an anonymous source, the AP reported that a high-ranking North Korean official was visiting China when Trump pulled out of the summit with Kim.
On Wednesday, the China Railway Beijing Group posted images of changes to the train schedules between Beijing and stations in northeastern China – a region bordering North Korea – in late May and mid-June, fueling fresh rumors of possible visits of North Korean senior officials to China.
Trump said Kim had “a little change in attitude” after the second meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“The first time everybody knew about, the second time was like a surprise. And I think things changed after that meeting. So I can’t say that I'm happy about it, OK?” Trump told reporters on Tuesday, calling Xi “a world class poker player.”
Xi first met with his North Korean counterpart in late March. Within a little more than one month, Xi and Kim met again in in the Chinese port city of Dalian. The rapid succession of meetings was highly unusual.
What the two leaders really talked about remains a mystery, but sources told the South China Morning Post that North Korea was emboldened after China, its largest trading partner, promised economic cooperation, with undisclosed conditions.
Analysts say that China might have felt anxious for being excluded from the talks between the US and North Korea.
“Probably the biggest winner of the Trump-Kim fallout is China,” Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at Sejong Institute in Seoul, told Inkstone.
“For the time being, China prefers a stable status quo in the region, with North Korea on its side.”
Because of the rivalry between Washington and Beijing on multiple fronts, China is averse to a “sudden shift” in geopolitics on the Korean Peninsula, he said.
However, some experts think it is in China’s interest to facilitate talks between the US and North Korea.
“It would be a difficult situation for China if the US and North Korea were confronting each other again. Such confrontations would create challenge for China to maintain normal relationship with North Korea. China cannot afford having confrontations with the US in trade, military and affairs in the Korean peninsula," said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
But even though Trump blamed China for what he saw as Kim’s hardened tone, some analysts have pointed their fingers at the division within the Trump administration for the collapse of the planned talks.
Pyongyang reacted furiously after National Security Adviser John Bolton suggested that North Korea could take Libya as a model, and Vice President Mike Pence compared the country to Libya in an interview with Fox.
In 2003, Libya gave up its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of sanctions from the US. Eight years later, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown.
Erik Mobrand, associate professor of international studies at Seoul National University, said the Libya model was precisely the reason why North Korea developed nuclear weapons in first place.
“The reason for Trump pulling out would seem to have to do with different views within the White House,” said Mobrand. “Comments from Bolton and Vice President Pence on Libya indicate that at least parts of the administration strongly oppose dialogue with North Korea.”
End of negotiations?
The Trump-Kim summit was agreed and cancelled in an equally surprising manner, but experts believe all hope is not lost yet.
North Korea reacted to news of the cancellation calmly, saying that it is “willing to sit face to face at any time and in any way” with the US.
And Trump hasn’t dismissed all possibilities of negotiations with North Korea. In his letter to Kim, he said: “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”
Lisa Collins, Korea Chair fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it’s likely that back-channel communications between the two countries could lead to another summit.
Additional reporting by Lee Jeong-ho and Xinyan Yu