When the carrot fails, the stick comes out.
Just a few hours after Donald Trump unexpectedly cancelled the planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong Un, which he called "a tremendous setback for North Korea and indeed a setback for the world", the president said the U.S. military is ready if necessary in the event of a conflict on the Korean peninsula.
Speaking at the White House not long after releasing the "Dear John" letter to Kim, Trump said he had conferred with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (who continues to warn anyone who is listening of imminent war), the leaders of South Korea and Japan, and said that the U.S. military is "ready if necessary" and the two Asian allies "are not only ready should foolish or reckless acts be taken by North Korea, but they are willing to shoulder much of the cost of any financial burden" of a conflict.
President Trump says he's spoken to Sec. Mattis and that the U.S. military is "ready if necessary" after cancelling North Korea summit: "We are more ready than we have ever been before." https://t.co/mT5oen5Kri pic.twitter.com/XpD5yZ3Ues— NBC News (@NBCNews) May 24, 2018
Trump's not so veiled threat came just hours after North Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs, Choe Son Hui said that if the June 12 talks were called off, the U.S. could instead face off with North Korea in a "nuclear-to-nuclear showdown" threatening to "make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined up to now" and called VP Mike Pence a "political dummy" for threatening to use the "Libya Model" (which ended not so well for Muammar Gadaffi) if North Korea does not denuclearize.
Trump also left the door slightly open for a last minute reconciliation, noting that the June 12 summit in Singapore could get back on track, or that he and Kim could meet in the future. However, as Bloomberg reports, the probability of that is virtually nil:
A senior administration official later downplayed the idea that the meeting could be put back on track for June 12. The North Koreans, the official said, have recently stopped cooperating on preparations for the summit. For example, U.S. officials traveled to Singapore last week expecting to meet with North Korean counterparts, but the North Koreans never showed up.
“They stood us up,” the official said at a briefing for reporters conducted on condition of anonymity.
Trump's unexpected reversal led to much confusion in the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-In, who said that peace on the peninsula shouldn’t be abandoned and suggested that Trump and Kim hurt chances for a successful summit by speaking to each other through statements, tweets and spokespeople.
“It’s hard to resolve the diplomatic issue, which is both difficult and sensitive, with current way of communication,” Moon said in a statement. “I wish the leaders would have a more direct and closer conversation to deal with it.
While Trump took a conciliatory tone toward South Korea, he mentioned what some saw as a hint that the talks had fallen apart due to recent Chinese intervention. Trump said that the dialogue with Kim "was good until recently” and that "Kim Jong Un wants to do what’s right" but, he added, "It’s only recently that this has been taking place and I think I understand why it’s been taking place," he said cryptically, declining to explain further. But, as Bloomberg points out, Trump said earlier this week that planning for the summit had been proceeding well until Kim met May 8 with his closest ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is negotiating a trade dispute with Trump.
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With the meeting now indefinitely abandoned, the next steps are unclear. Trump has said the U.S. would continue exerting maximum economic pressure on Kim and his regime, potentially involving the US millitary as was the case for much of 2017. A senior administration official told Bloomberg that the U.S. is still short of maximum pressure on Kim, suggesting the possibility of further sanctions or other actions.
It is also unclear what North Korea's official response, which is due any moment, will be: the timing of Trump’s letter will certainly be an embarrassment to Kim Jong Un, who made a deliberate show of demolishing its main nuclear-weapons test site before a select group of foreign journalists just hours before Trump sent the letter. The exercise was portrayed as the destruction of tunnels used for all six of North Korea’s nuclear tests, but there was no independent verification that the site was disabled, and furthermore many had said that the site had already collapsed on its own due to structural instability.
“We can expect North Korea will condemn the decision in strong terms and cast blame on the United States for throwing away a good thing through its actions,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “That does raise concerns that Trump will respond in a way that further escalates tension to ‘fire and fury’ levels and beyond.”
What is clear, is that Russian president Putin made it obvious he was on Kim's side, saying he was disappointed the planned summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un was cancelled and said North Korea was not to blame.
“In Russia, we took this news with regret,” Putin said at a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Associated Press reported. “We had very much counted on it being a significant step in sorting out the situation on the Korean Peninsula and that it would be the beginning of the process of denuclearizing the whole Korean Peninsula."
Putin also said Kim “did everything he promised in advance,” citing North Korea’s claim that it had destroyed its nuclear testing site.
And so the ball is now in North Korea's court which, according to most pundits, will respond by blaming Trump, unleashing another round of escalating tit-for-tat jawboning. The only question is whether it will once again culminate with an ICBM being fired by North Korea, and whether the "decapitation" strike which the White House had planned over a year ago, will follow.