In a dramatic diplomatic setback, President Trump abruptly reversed course Thursday and pulled out of his scheduled nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, releasing a letter to Kim that blamed the “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed” by Pyongyang.
Speaking later at the White House, Trump called his decision to cancel the much-anticipated June 12 summit in Singapore “a tremendous setback for North Korea and, I believe, for the world,” but left open the possibility that it could be rescheduled.
“If and when Kim Jong Un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting,” Trump said, adding that U.S. sanctions against North Korea would continue in the meantime.
Trump’s withdrawal came two days after he signaled for the first time that his demand for a swift and comprehensive nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea might be impossible to achieve, and that any arms control accord with Kim almost certainly would require negotiated phases with reciprocal U.S. actions and a lengthy time frame.
That set the stage for a summit in a global spotlight that might have required Trump to make concessions and compromises — or even risk failure — rather than the one-sided diplomatic triumph he initially seemed to envision, even encouraging supporters who claimed he deserved a Nobel Prize.
While the White House blamed Kim for Trump’s decision to scuttle the summit, some national security aides had privately expressed concerns that the U.S. delegation and the president himself were unprepared for the intensity of nuclear negotiations.
For its part, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan issued a conciliatory statement hours later saying Pyongyang was ready to meet with the United States “at any time.”
Saying Trump’s withdrawal did not match “the world’s desire,” Kim said a summit is urgently needed to deal with “grave hostilities” in relations between Pyongyang and Washington, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“Leader Kim Jong Un had focused every effort on his meeting with President Trump,” the statement said.
In recent days, Trump had publicly hinted that he was reconsidering the summit, which he had quickly agreed to in March. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord this month added pressure since North Korea — which possesses a sizable nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles, while Iran had none — presented a far greater challenge and threat.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew twice to Pyongyang to meet with Kim and on May 9 he secured the release of three Americans who had been held by North Korea. Trump welcomed them back to Joint Base Andrews with broad smiles in the pre-dawn darkness, later touting the TV ratings he said he had drawn.
Within the administration, however, doubts about Kim’s intentions deepened after Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang. There was no sign of an outline of an agreement under which North Korea would scale back or abandon its nuclear weapons program, and Kim appeared nervous about his personal safety and about the integrity of any long-term U.S. security guarantees.
White House staff became deeply worried that Kim was unwilling to abandon his nuclear weapons — believed to be between a dozen and 60 devices — and take other steps toward a credible disarmament, according to a person briefed on the trip who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.
The “delegation came back and realized the North Koreans weren’t serious,” the person said.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity Thursday afternoon outlined what he called “a trail of broken promises” from North Korea. Among then, Pyongyang’s team for negotiating summit details didn’t show up for a planning meeting with U.S. officials in Singapore less than two weeks ago, the official said.
“They simply stood us up,” the official said. All told, the North Korea side showed “a profound lack of good faith.”
On Wednesday night, Trump was briefed on the latest hostile statements from Pyongyang, the official said, and he “took it in stride and slept on it.” On Thursday morning, the president met with Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence, national security advisor John Bolton and other senior aides and then “he dictated this letter” – every word of it — to Kim.
Some outside experts on North Korea said Trump had overplayed his hand — and folded to avoid embarrassment in Singapore.
"The president wanted this so much that they had to try to make it happen," said Michael Green, a member of President George W. Bush's National Security Council, who engaged in previous talks with North Korea.
"The problem was the president really thought he'd struck gold with this North Korean statement on denuclearization, and he hadn't. When Pompeo went to pin them down and came back with nothing, it was obvious,” Green said.
"I think the president is now opening his eyes to what all of his national security team always knew: that North Korea was never serious," he said.
Christopher Hill, a veteran diplomat who led the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks with North Korea in 2005, said the Trump-Kim meeting was shaping up to be "the most ill-prepared summit in history."
Hill said he'd seen no evidence that the two leaders had determined what each side was looking for. "All we had was that they're prepared to discuss denuclearlization, but neither side seemed to agree on or state clearly what that even meant to them,” he said.
South Korea and other U.S. allies appeared to get little advance notice of Trump’s decision to cancel the summit.
Trump had warned South Korea President Moon Jae-in, who played matchmaker in bringing Trump and Kim together, of problems when Moon visited the White House on Tuesday. But both leaders were still hopeful the summit could proceed when Moon left Washington, officials said.
On Thursday, Moon had just returned to Seoul when news broke about Trump’s pullout. He quickly called a midnight meeting of top South Korean officials. In a statement issued at 1:30 a.m. local time, Moon called the cancellation regrettable and called for more dialogue.
"Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and enduring peace are historic tasks that cannot be abandoned or delayed," Moon said. "The sincerity of the parties who have tried to solve the problem has not changed."
Trump's cancellation came after days of increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from North Korea that suggested it was having second thoughts about the summit. It wasn’t clear if Kim was getting cold feet and was seeking a way out, or was just testing Trump to see how far he would go.
In his one-page letter to Kim, addressed as “Dear Mr. Chairman,” Trump called the summit "inappropriate at this time" given the "tremendous anger and open hostility” coming from Pyongyang.
He did not cite specifics, but a high-ranking North Korean official, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, earlier Thursday had called Pence a “political dummy” and his comments "ignorant and stupid" after Pence suggested on Fox News that North Korea could go the way of Libya. The official also said Pyongyang was just as prepared to meet in a nuclear confrontation as at the negotiating table.
Libya surrendered a nascent nuclear program in 2003 partly in hopes, never fulfilled, of gaining greater economic integration with the West. Its strongman leader, Moammar Kadafi, was overthrown and killed eight years later during a U.S.-backed uprising that grew out of the Arab Spring. Although the civil war has largely eased, Libya has struggled ever since.
In the three-paragraph letter, Trump called the canceled summit "a missed opportunity [that] is truly a sad moment in history." He urged Kim to “call me or write” if he changed his mind, although it was Trump who had pulled out of the meeting.
"I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me and, ultimately, it is the only dialogue that matters," Trump wrote. "Some day I look very much forward to meeting you.”
Trump also added a veiled threat about a possible conflict with the reclusive nuclear-armed nation.
"You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they never have to be used," Trump wrote.
Trump echoed that bellicose tone two hours later at the White House. He said he had spoken with South Korean and Japanese officials and that they were prepared to stand with the U.S. “if necessary should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea.”
Trump also claimed that the two U.S. allies were “ready to shoulder the costs … if such an unfortunate situation is forced upon us.” Both countries already pay huge sums to support U.S. troops based in northeast Asia, but the remark reflected Trump’s frequent complaint that U.S. military alliances are too costly.
Answering questions from reporters, Trump said that “the dialogue was good until recently.”
He said he believed he understood why North Korea’s tone had soured, but refused to specify. In recent days he has publicly blamed Chinese President Xi Jinping for a change in Pyongyang’s approach. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and chief political ally.
Shortly before Trump disclosed his decision to cancel the summit, North Korea claimed it had demolished its main nuclear test site with a series of explosions. Kim had vowed on April 20 to close the underground complex under Mt. Mantap as a goodwill gesture to show Pyongyang would stop testing nuclear weapons.
The detonations were intended to seal several tunnels and render the underground facility inoperable, although there was no independent way to confirm that. North Korea has tested six nuclear devices of increasing sophistication and power in the complex, near the village of Punggye-ri in the country’s northeast.
Journalists from several countries were allowed to witness the explosions. It’s not clear Pyongyang will allow international nuclear inspectors to visit the location and confirm that the site is permanently closed, or whether it could be reopened and used again in the future.
The North made rapid strides in its offensive capabilities last year, testing not only its first thermonuclear device but its first missiles capable of reaching the continental United States. U.S. officials say that Pyongyang is not yet capable of putting a nuclear warhead atop one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Trump’s Republican allies were quick to praise his decision to pull out of the summit.
"North Korea has a long history of demanding concessions merely to negotiate,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “While past administrations of both parties have fallen for this ruse, I commend the president for seeing through Kim Jong Un’s fraud."
Democrats offered a harsher assessment.
“Given how amateurish the rollout and planning for these talks have been, no one should be surprised they are being called off," said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"From an impromptu announcement of the summit by a mid-level South Korean diplomat in the White House driveway, to the unhelpful comments by John Bolton and Vice President Pence regarding their affection for the 'Libya model,' the leadup to the meeting has been as discombobulated as everything else in this White House's foreign policy. But I still hope these talks happen, because the alternative — the White House war cheerleaders using this failure as an excuse to move toward military action — is unacceptable,” Murphy said.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he is "deeply concerned" about the cancellation of the summit and urged new efforts "to find a path to the peaceful and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."
Stokols is a special correspondent based in Washington. Stiles is a special correspondent based in Seoul. Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this story.