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There Was A Lot Invested In U.S.-North Korea Summit. What Happened?


For weeks, we have been talking about whether a proposed summit between North Korea and the United States would happen. There was a place - Singapore. There was a date - June 12. Commemorative coins were even made. Now the whole thing is off. President Trump wrote a letter to North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un informing him that he was canceling the meeting.

We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen. Scott, I want to start with you. This was pretty dramatic, a dramatic moment here in Washington, a lot of people caught off-guard.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It was abrupt. I happened to be sitting in a briefing at one of the local think tanks where we were talking about what to expect from this upcoming summit when reporters started passing around their smartphones with the news. The White House was in the midst of its own preparations. The presidential advance team was set to leave for Singapore this weekend to scout the summit location.

There's a lot of machinery that goes into a visit like this. And the president abruptly pulled the plug this morning in a letter. He did so regretfully. He said, the world and North Korea in particular has lost a great opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth. He called this missed opportunity a truly sad moment in history.

MARTIN: So then why is it happening? It sounds like he is kind of lamentful (ph) that it's not going forward.

HORSLEY: Well, he blamed this on sort of increasingly bellicose rhetoric from the North Korean side. In his letter, he talks about the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in Kim's most recent statements. Both Kim and his deputies have been taking a tougher line on the U.S. in recent days. The North Koreans were unhappy with National Security Adviser John Bolton for suggesting that North Korea should completely abandon its nuclear program the way Libya did back in 2003.

North Korea says they expected more respect for their nuclear program, which is much more advanced now than Libya's was at the time. And the North Koreans seem to be incensed by comments from the vice president earlier this week that North Korea's regime could be toppled the way Libya's eventually was if it didn't come to the bargaining table. A North Korean deputy said in a statement carried on Korean television overnight that North Korea could, quote, "make the U.S. taste an appalling tragedy" if the Trump administration continued in this vein.

MARTIN: All right. Let's bring in diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's following all this from the State Department right now. I mean, Michele, how much of this was actually coordinated with people there at the State Department? Or did this decision just come unilaterally from the White House?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, I mean, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo read out that letter in a Senate hearing today, so he obviously was in the know. He's been the guy who went twice to Pyongyang, once when he was still CIA director and most recently soon after he was confirmed as secretary of state to prepare for this meeting. He's the only one who's been meeting with Kim Jong Un. And he talked today about how he regrets these statements coming out from North Korea.

There was one interesting thing that he did say when questioned by senators about what went wrong here. He said that over the past several days, he's been trying to do what Kim Jong Un and he agreed to, and that was to put these preparation teams together. And he says that they received no response to our inquiries from the North Koreans in the past few days on this. So there seems to be a broken-down channel of backchannel communication here.

MARTIN: South Korea's president, Moon Jae-in, was heavily invested in this. He had a lot riding on making this summit happen. He was here in Washington, D.C., met with President Trump. This is going to be a blow for him.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he's already called, we're told, an emergency meeting of his aides to talk about this. China's foreign minister, who was just here in Washington meeting with Pompeo yesterday, will also be a key player here going ahead. One of the problems, Rachel, for this administration is, you know, the argument - who is to blame for why this went wrong? I mean, yes, we've heard some rhetoric from North Korea, but as, you know, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, says, this is North Korea being North Korea. We should expect some of this. But they did, you know, release three American hostages recently. And they did destroy this nuclear test site, as they had promised to, today - or at least they claim to have done that.

MARTIN: So there were some good-faith gestures made by North Korea that was happening supposedly in advance of the summit. But what happens now? I mean, where do we go, Scott? Does it just return to the status quo, where there was all this crazy rhetoric being bandied about between the Trump administration and Kim Jong Un? And a lot of people were very uncomfortable about that, including those in South Korea, who felt trapped in the middle of all the uncertainty.

HORSLEY: Absolutely. Well, the president left the door open in his letter to renewed talks. He ends his no with a sort of upbeat, hey, if you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write. So there is sort of an invitation there to Kim to restart the talks which the president has abruptly broken off. At the same time, Donald Trump kind of return to jockeying with Kim over the size of their figurative nuclear buttons. Trump wrote - you talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful I pray to God they'll never have to be used.

Beyond the - what happens next on the negotiating front to the rhetorical front, there's also the question of, what happens on the ground in North Korea? You know, Pyongyang has been observing a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. Possibly the missile tests, at least, resume. Although as Michele points out, South Korea - excuse me, North Korea made a very public show this morning of destroying its nuclear testing ground. It's also maybe the case that North Korea doesn't really need that nuclear testing ground anymore given the relatively advanced state of its weapons program.

MARTIN: Right. Maybe that was just some well-placed theater.

KELEMEN: That's been one of the things from the beginning is what drove them to the table in the first place. The administration said it was because of the, you know, enormous pressure that the U.S. and others put on it. And the North Koreans are saying, well, we've, you know, we have a nuclear weapon now. And so that's why they were coming to the table - to come as equals. That's been one of the problems all along is that the two sides see the meeting in a much different way.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen discussing President Trump's decision to cancel the U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.