The cancellation of a U.S.-North Korea summit slated for June 12 should be regarded as a move to start over rather than a collapse of dialogue. Considering the current situation and the future of East Asia, it is not expedient to revive fierce opposition between the two countries when there is potential for such opposition to develop into an armed conflict.
U.S. President Donald Trump sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pointing out that it is inappropriate to go ahead with the meeting, citing North Korea's recent criticism of the United States and other matters.
While asking Kim to notify Washington if he changes his mind, Trump did not rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons to attack North Korea saying, "You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used."
While expressing regret over the cancellation of the meeting, North Korea appreciated the decision Trump made in the first place to agree to meet with Kim. It is extremely unusual for North Korea, which even pointed to the possibility of a nuclear war in response to Vice President Mike Pence's statements, to show flexibility in its response to Trump's cancellation of the summit.
Trump told reporters that there still is a possibility of going ahead with the summit as scheduled -- apparently reacting favorably to North Korea's response. It would be a waste to dump plans for the first U.S.-North Korea summit in history as neither side is refusing dialogue. The two countries should continue to work to achieve their first bilateral summit.
It is indispensable to sort out issues on the agenda and points of contention in any summit. The efforts that are underway mark the first attempts to denuclearize a country like North Korea that has developed nuclear weapons to such a great extent. Denuclearization would have a huge impact on reconciliation between North and South Korea and on prospects of ending the Korean War.
It is important to take time to organize a fruitful summit meeting instead of hastily arranging talks for the talks' sake.
Meeting agendas and points of contention for the U.S.-North Korea summit have not yet been clarified, but it is almost certain that specific procedures and methods for denuclearizing North Korea and guaranteeing that North Korea's regime will be maintained will emerge as key topics.
The United States has stuck to the principle of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons, seeking to denuclearize the North either instantly or in a short period of time.
North Korea, in contrast, seeks to denuclearize itself on a step-by-step basis, asking for rewards at each step. These include financial assistance and the lifting of sanctions against Pyongyang.
Libya, which declared its abandonment of nuclear arms in 2003, received rewards after completing denuclearization. John Bolton, national security advisor for President Trump, is now promoting this kind of "Libya style" process. However, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed by anti-government forces backed by the United States and Britain in the 2011 civil war.
North Korea, which has prioritized the maintenance of its regime, is opposed to the Libya-style process precisely because of this. However, Trump has sent North Korea a signal indicating that Washington is not restricting itself to such Libya-style process and is prepared to flexibly respond to the matter, expressing a certain level of understanding for North Korea's proposal of abandoning nuclear arms on a step-by-step basis.
Still, Washington and Pyongyang have apparently found it difficult to narrow down differences between the two countries over the issue. The fact that Trump, who wants to score political goals as he looks ahead to midterm elections in autumn, declared the cancellation of his planned meeting with Kim highlights the seriousness of the discord between the two countries.
North Korea has displayed flexibility by releasing three Americans it had detained and unveiling the closure of its nuclear test site to the media. Critics say that nuclear experts were not invited to view the demolition of the test site because the country wanted to conceal the actual status of its nuclear experiments. However, the easing of tensions between North Korea and the international community should be seen as a positive move.
The North-South summit in April and improvement in relations between China and North Korea have raised hopes for the advent of a new era. However, there remain suspicions that North Korea, which had been isolated in the international community because of U.N. economic sanctions and U.S. military pressure, has decreased its enthusiasm about denuclearization because it has overcome such isolation to a certain extent.
The Trump administration believes that the North's attitude toward Washington has subtly changed as a result of improvements in Pyongyang's relations with Beijing. China and South Korea have reconciled with North Korea on the premise that Pyongyang will abandon its nuclear arms. However, there remain fears that North Korea could take a step back from denuclearization.
Tokyo has expressed understanding toward Trump's decision to cancel his meeting with Kim and has declared that Japan will continue to apply pressure on North Korea to force the country to change its policy. Japan, which would be exposed directly to any military threat from Pyongyang, regards ridding North Korea of nuclear arms and missiles as top priorities. Tokyo should cooperate with Washington to ascertain whether Pyongyang really intends to abandon its nuclear arms.
North Korea should present its intention to abandon nuclear weapons in a more specific manner. The North is believed to have more than 10 nuclear weapons, and voluntarily dismantling them would be one way to show it is enthusiastic about denuclearization.
It would be out of the question for North Korea to stiffen its stance toward the United States or step up efforts toward nuclear and missile development in retaliation for Trump's cancellation of the summit with Kim.
If Pyongyang clarifies that it will completely abandon its nuclear weapons program and pursue economic growth while receiving assistance from Japan and the United States, it will lead to a fruitful U.S.-North Korea summit.