If you didn't know better, you'd think President Trump and Kim Jong Un just broke up.
“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters,” Trump wrote in his letter canceling their planned June 12 summit in Singapore. “Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”
He added: “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.” He later tweeted out the letter with an almost wistful “Sadly” at the top.
In case there was any doubt how badly Trump wants his dialogue with North Korea to work, there's the evidence. As I wrote earlier this week, Trump didn't seem to want to let this go — and still doesn't seem to, even floating the possibility of holding the summit at a later date. He's invested in this thing, for somewhat obvious reasons.
These are clearly mixed signals from Trump, whether deliberate or not. On the one hand, he's calling off the meeting and again threatening North Korea with the possibility of armed conflict; on the other, he's making clear that he hasn't walked away from the table forever.
And while it's weird, it's not ridiculous. Trump's strategy with North Korea has always been a two-pronged, carrot-and-stick approach — the “madman” strategy. He has repeatedly threatened North Korea with destruction, even doing so on the floor of the United Nations, but also said many oddly sympathetic things about Kim. And it seemed to work for a while, with Kim coming to the table in the face of unprecedented sanctions, releasing three American prisoners, destroying his nuclear test site and at least talking a good game about a peace deal.
At the same time, North Korea has long sought the summit that Trump rather hastily agreed to. The idea that it was some big coup to agree to a meeting with Kim was always overblown. And Trump really built the whole thing up, even having some fun with talk about winning a Nobel Peace Prize. This whole situation could probably have been avoided if the details had been ironed out in advance rather than Trump just saying “yes.”
This has led some of Trump's opponents to gloat. This, after all, would seem to be the moment the supposed world's best negotiator was unable to close the deal. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was quick to call Kim the “big winner” here.
But that seems premature. Whatever your feelings about Trump and how much credit he deserves, there have been positive signs with North Korea. It may ultimately lead nowhere, but you can hardly call his North Korea strategy a failure. We may even ultimately have the summit, as Trump seems to want. Walking away from the negotiating table can be a negotiating tactic in and of itself. The question in this has never truly been whether Trump would get to the negotiating table, but what would happen once he's there — and whether he would drive a hard enough bargain.
“It is true that Trump overreacted to the petty game North Korea was playing to improve its hand,” Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, told The Washington Post. “But if North Korea is not serious about denuclearization as understood generally, it would have been dangerous to hold the summit as scheduled.”
Trump has shown signs that he might want this to work a little too badly, but at least for now, he's showing that he is willing to walk away from an unhealthy relationship. And that wasn't always a given.