Before his face-to-face summit with Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump insisted that the North Korean dictator could not be trusted with a nuclear weapons program of any kind. During that historic meeting in Singapore, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that complete denuclearization “is the only outcome that the United States will accept” from Pyongyang.
By the summit’s end, the Trump administration had made no significant progress toward achieving that goal. Pyongyang did reiterate its “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But North Korea had long expressed such a commitment, and in much the same spirit that American presidents (used to) tout their fond desire to see a world without nuclear weapons. The “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” in Kim’s view, would require the total and verifiable elimination of America’s capacity to strike his nation with a nuclear weapon. His statement did not indicate that he was willing to be the first to disarm.
And yet, when Trump returned to the United States, he announced that his mission had been accomplished. “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” the president tweeted.
And one could reasonably argue that Trump was right. After all, many North Korea experts believe that the regime is rational, and would never launch a (suicidal) nuclear first strike on the United States. Thus, the primary threat posed by Kim’s program was, arguably, that its existence would inspire Trump to launch a mass-casualty conflict on the Korean peninsula. By all appearances, Trump’s meeting with Kim had put that threat to rest. In Singapore, the president reached a peace deal with himself: In exchange for tacitly tolerating a nuclear North Korea, Trump gave himself credit for a historic diplomatic triumph.
To be sure, the Trump administration carried on making earnest attempts to realize its official goal of denuclearization. But Pompeo’s failure to make meaningful progress in three trips to North Korea did not damper the president’s enthusiasm for what he had accomplished at his historic summit with Kim. And when the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report Monday arguing that North Korea is likely expanding its nuclear capacity, Trump voiced no public concern at the news. His commitment to pretending that Pyongyang had met his demands appeared to be unshakeable.
But that just changed.
In a series of tweets Friday afternoon, Trump announced that he had cancelled Pompeo’s impending trip to North Korea, because “because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Notably, Trump attributed this lack of progress to China — rather than to Kim’s regime — arguing that Beijing had ceased “helping with the process of denuclearization,” in an apparent response to the administration’s “tougher Trading stance.”
The president nonetheless signaled optimism about the prospects for further cooperation between Washington and Pyongyang, writing, “Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved. In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
It is unclear why Trump finally decided to acknowledge the fact that North Korea is not actually dismantling its nuclear program, much less, why he opted to take the drastic measure of cancelling Pompeo’s trip just days before it was set to commence. But if the president is no longer content to pretend that North Korea is denuclearizing, the self-engineered “nuclear crisis” that he resolved in Singapore could flare up again in the near future.