Stanford scholars discuss diplomacy’s future after U.S.-North Korea summit is canceled

Stanford scholars offer their reaction to the cancellation of the highly anticipated summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Following the announcement that the United States had canceled a planned summit with North Korea, Stanford scholars discuss the future of diplomacy and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.

U.S. and North Korea flags painted on a grungy concete wall

What led to the U.S. canceling the planned summit with North Korea? Could a meeting realistically be rescheduled? Stanford scholars discuss the issues. (Image credit: Getty Images)

President Donald Trump was scheduled to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12 to discuss efforts for denuclearization and a peace plan for the region. What led to the U.S. canceling the planned talks? Could a meeting realistically be rescheduled? Can the U.S. diplomatically negotiate denuclearization when there are clearly different approaches to what disarmament looks like?

To address these questions, Stanford News Service talked to four Stanford scholars about the issues:

  • Michael Auslin is the inaugural Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution. He specializes in global risk analysis, U.S. security and foreign policy strategy, and security and political relations in Asia. He recently authored The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region.
  • Siegfried Hecker is a top nuclear security scholar, former Los Alamos National Laboratory director and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Hecker’s research interests include plutonium science, nuclear weapons policy and international security, nuclear security (including nonproliferation and counterterrorism) and cooperative nuclear threat reduction.
  • Gi-Wook Shin is a sociology professor, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and the founding director of the Korea Program. His research has concentrated on social movements, nationalism, development and international relations. He recently authored Superficial Korea, a book about social maladies currently affecting Korean society.
  • Kathleen Stephens is the William J. Perry Fellow in the Korea Program at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. From 2008 to 2011, she served as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea. She has four decades of experience in Korean affairs, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Korea in the 1970s, and in ensuing decades as a diplomat and as U.S. ambassador in Seoul.


What led to the summit’s cancellation?

Auslin: The real problem was the rushed nature of the summit. The lure of an unprecedented first-time meeting between the U.S. president and the North Korean dictator meant that there was a short window in which the two sides could resolve key issues before the leaders sat down together. And after nearly 70 years of hostility and failed negotiations, negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang would have been extraordinarily difficult in any case. At the core, however, the two sides needed to agree on the fundamental question of the definition of denuclearization, let alone its timetable and the sequence of U.S. aid, before the two principals met. As the time drew near, North Korea tried to force the U.S. into recognizing its own definition of denuclearization and timetable.

Hecker: Two weeks ago, matters looked very good, especially after Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang. After he returned, he said the U.S. and North Korea had similar visions of the future. Then, during the past week, high-level Trump administration officials painted a very different vision for North Korea’s future by pushing for a Libya model of denuclearization. Not surprisingly, visions of Muammar Gaddafi’s mutilated body did not go over well in Pyongyang. North Korean officials wrote scathing rebuttals that appeared to lead to a race as to who would cancel the summit first. President Trump won that race.

Shin: The summit fell through because two sides failed to narrow the gap on how to get to denuclearization of North Korea. Trump was obsessed with a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, known also as CVID, and the principle of “denuclearization first, then economic rewards,” but Kim wanted a gradual, step-by-step approach. Trump was probably under pressure from Republican conservatives that he could not settle for a “bad” deal – which would mean anything less than CVID. At the working level, the U.S. was probably not ready for talks to happen in two weeks. Trump might have used North Korea’s recent verbal attacks as an excuse to cancel the June summit.

Stephens: President Trump surprised everyone, including his own staff, some weeks ago by suddenly and seemingly impulsively agreeing to a summit with the North Korean leader. His letter to Kim Jung Un this morning withdrawing from the June 12 summit had the same feeling of hasty improvisation. He took umbrage, understandably, at the tone and substance of recent North Korean statements, though they were not exceptional by Pyongyang’s historical standards. He also seemed to realize, belatedly, the huge gap between U.S. expectations of “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea and Pyongyang’s vague pledge to negotiate, as a nuclear weapons state itself, the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.


Is a delayed summit likely?

Auslin: Trump left open the possibility of a future meeting, but only if Kim ratchets down the rhetoric and insults. It is just as likely that Pyongyang will increase its threatening words, and possibly even undertake aggressive acts, to try and blackmail the U.S. back to the negotiating table. If the two sides can quietly continue high-level talks aimed at agreeing on a definition of denuclearization and a timetable, along with U.S. aid – admittedly, difficult objectives – then a delayed summit is possible.

Shin: Trump has now handed the ball over to Kim, and whether the two can get back on the path to diplomacy will depend on how Kim reacts to Trump’s statement. If he reacts with merely provocative words and no actions, chances are that the talks can still happen in the near future. But if Kim cancels all the behind-the-scenes, working-level talks and negotiations altogether, we are expecting another long period of no communication between the two countries or even a rise of tension and conflict.


How can the U.S. diplomatically negotiate denuclearization when there are different objectives at stake?

Auslin: That has always been the great problem in negotiating with Pyongyang. It has little incentive to give up its nuclear weapons, even with security guarantees from the United States. Three U.S. presidents have failed in negotiations, and the Kim regime has steadily progressed in developing both a nuclear weapons capability and a ballistic missile capability. The Trump administration gambled that threat of a U.S. attack, combined with “maximum pressure,” would create a breakthrough that eluded previous administrations, but Pyongyang reverted to form by making increasing demands in the past week. Right now, the U.S. has failed to figure out the right mix of pressure and accommodation that gets the North to the table, absent pre-emptive U.S. concessions. However, it does not need to continually remind Kim of the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, overthrown in Libya in 2011, to try to strong-arm it into talks.

Hecker: There actually appeared to be a partial reconciliation of views during the past week with some in the Trump administration, including the president, acknowledging that denuclearization will take time and most likely will have to occur in a phased manner. I have promoted for some time what I call a “halt, roll back and eventually eliminate” approach. It will take years, but there was some hope that North Korea would front-load some of its steps in rolling back its nuclear program, as it did in destroying a nuclear test site yesterday.

Shin: Trump was mistaken if he thought he could handle and directly deal with North Korea by himself. He needs help from all involved stakeholders such as China, South Korea, etc. Diplomacy is different from doing business.

Stephens: By working closely with allies, through both pressure and engagement, and by doing the heavy diplomatic preparation and lifting that was missing this time around.


What does this mean for relations between North Korea and South Korea?

Shin: It will certainly create a big dilemma for South Korea. It has declared that a new era has begun with North Korea and promised to improve inter-Korean relations by all means. So, it will be difficult for South Korea to rejoin the U.S.’s maximum pressure campaign. At the same time, inter-Korean relations, especially in the economic sector, cannot be improved without the support from the U.S. and ease of sanctions.

Hecker: South Korean President Moon just released a statement saying it was regretful and disconcerting that the summit was canceled. He made it clear that North-South reconciliation must proceed, commenting that “[We] hope that the leaders resolve problems through direct and close dialogue.”

Stephens: South Korea is in a very difficult position. They were blindsided by Trump’s letter to Kim. They will be eager to get Pyongyang and Washington back into dialogue. Again, much will depend on Pyongyang.


Who do you think lost the most with the summit’s cancellation: Trump? Kim? Moon?

Auslin: Moon is the big loser, having declared a new era of peace and bet everything on a durable peace process. North Korea looks like its usual, disruptive, untrustworthy self, which in turn makes Moon appear naive. Now, the North may well try to pressure the South into unilateral concessions to get the “peace” process back on track; these could include aggressive acts against South Korean interests. For his part, Trump has made clear he won’t play Charlie Brown to Kim’s Lucy with the football.

Hecker: The world lost a chance for moving away from the brink of war on the Korean Peninsula. I believe it was the greatest shock to President Moon, who worked so hard to create the conditions for the summit.

Shin: It will be Moon>Trump>Kim in the order of who loses the most. Moon’s aggressive efforts in the recent months to mediate between Kim and Trump didn’t pay off after all.

Stephens: Kim has lost the least and has the most leverage at the moment.


What realistically will happen next?

Auslin: North Korean aggression against South Korea is not out of the question, as a way to try to force everyone back to the table. Increased rhetoric from the North against Trump and America is also very likely. Behind the scenes, however, if the administration can quietly continue talks with high-ranking North Koreans to try and reach agreement on what denuclearization means and a possible timetable, then the two sides could return to the idea of a summit, possibly by the end of the year.

Hecker: Hopefully the leaders will take the time afforded by this pause to work at the lower levels to move closer to creating the conditions for a successful summit.

Shin: We can expect some periods of crisis and conflicts again, however long it will last. There is still room for hope that the talks will be resumed, but it will now depend on how North Korea reacts.

Stephens: President Trump appears to want to leave the door open for a summit. The most optimistic scenario would be an interest in both Washington and Pyongyang to keep a channel open for talks. South Korea will want to get the parties to reengage.