US President Donald Trump has announced he will not attend a planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, raising concerns tensions between the two nations will escalate again with the threat of war.
In a letter sent to Kim on Thursday, Trump said the summit – which had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore – would no longer be possible “based on the tremendous anger and open hostility” shown by Pyongyang in its most recent statements.
“The world and North Korea has lost a tremendous opportunity for lasting peace and great prosperity and wealth,” Trump wrote. “This missed opportunity is truly a sad moment in history.”
The meeting would have been the first time a sitting US president met a North Korean leader.
The announcement comes two days after Trump hosted his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in in Washington, DC, for talks widely seen as a salvage effort to ensure his summit with Kim went ahead.
“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used,” said Trump.
North Korea called Trump’s decision “unexpected” and “regrettable” and expressing willingness to talk to the United States “at any time, [in] any format”.
A statement by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan Kim said Pyongyang’s “objective and resolve to do our best for the sake of peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and all humankind remain unchanged”.
“As far as the historic [North Korea]-US summit is concerned, we have inwardly highly appreciated President Trump for having made the bold decision, which any other US presidents dared not, and made efforts for such a crucial event as the summit,” Kim said.
A statement earlier on Thursday from Pyongyang referred to Vice President Mike Pence as a “political dummy”, and said it is just as ready to meet in a nuclear confrontation as at the negotiating table with the United States.
In a later statement at the White House, Trump said the US military is “ready if necessary” to respond to a “foolish or reckless act” by North Korea.
“Our military is the most powerful in the world. We are more ready than we have ever been before,” Trump said.
The Pentagon said it was prepared for any “provocative actions” from North Korea.
“We are in a boxer stance, we are ready to respond,” Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US military’s Joint Staff, told reporters.
“We’ll see what develops over the next few days. If any provocative actions occur from [North Korea], we will certainly – in concert with our allies and partners in the region – be ready for it.”
A letter from the President to Chairman Kim Jong Un: "It is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting." pic.twitter.com/3dDIp55xu1
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 24, 2018
‘Don’t hesitate to call’
Trump did say, however, he would be open to a possible meeting in the future.
“If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do hot hesitate to call me or write,” he said.
Trump had called on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and arsenal ahead of the summit.
North Korea, which reportedly demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear test site earlier on Thursday, had threatened to pull out of the Singapore summit if the US continued to demand it gives up its nuclear arsenal unilaterally.
Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies told Al Jazeera the tone of Trump’s letter bodes ill for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“The way that Trump did this in a letter that threatens North Korea with nuclear annihilation is probably not the right signal to send,” said Fitzpatrick.
“I don’t think North Korea is going to respond so well to that kind of a threat. North Korea is going to feel betrayed by this, North Korea will react negatively.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a Senate committee on Thursday the White House had “tried repeatedly” to connect with North Korea in recent days over plans for the Singapore summit, but received no response.
Will not ‘beg’
Earlier this month, Pyongyang said ongoing US-South Korea war games off the peninsula were not conducive to peace talks and demanded the manoeuvres be cancelled. The US balked at that demand.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui said on Thursday her country “will neither beg the US for dialogue, nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us”.
“Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room, or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States,” said Choe.
A spokesperson for Moon’s office said on Thursday that South Korea was trying to understand the reason for Trump’s abrupt cancellation.
“[We] are trying to figure out what President Trump’s intention is and the exact meaning of it,” Cheong Wa-dae told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Moon convened an emergency meeting with top security officials after Trump’s cancellation.
Sliding back to war
Andrei Lankov, an expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University, told Al Jazeera from Seoul that Trump’s announcement was “shocking and highly dangerous”.
“There is now again a looming and reasonably high threat of a major military confrontation in Korea,” Lankov said. “The entire Korean Peninsula is probably sliding back to a war, and if it happens not only Koreans or Americans but all people of the world will pay a price.”
Hazel Smith, a professor at the University of London, said comments by Trump administration officials such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Pence in recent days about a “Libya model” for North Korea likely made Pyongyang nervous.
Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear arsenal in negotiations with the West, but he was later overthrown and killed after a NATO air intervention that supported rebels on the ground.
“For North Korea, this [Libya model] simply means the overthrow of the government as Gaddafi was overthrown,” said Smith.