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Trump's withdrawal from Kim summit plunges East Asia into uncertainty

South Korea, China and Japan woke up Friday to a new and uncertain diplomatic reality, after US President Donald Trum...

Posted: May 25, 2018 12:27 PM
Updated: May 25, 2018 12:27 PM

South Korea, China and Japan woke up Friday to a new and uncertain diplomatic reality, after US President Donald Trump canceled what many considered to be the best chance of striking a deal for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

In less than 24 hours the terrain shifted dramatically under their feet, from the prospect of talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to doubt over the future of relations between the two countries.

In Seoul, officials responded with confusion and disappointment to Trump's announcement -- the White House hadn't informed South Korean officials of his decision beforehand -- while the Japanese government called for talks to continue to find a way out of the political impasse.

Beijing tried to highlight the positive on Friday afternoon, emphasizing both sides were still willing to talk, but experts said Trump's decision has put China in a tough position.

Across the region, people worried about whether the tensions between the US and North Korea could escalate, while officials scrambled to respond to the new political landscape.

"Bungling this diplomacy could put the region at greater risk of conflict than ever before," said Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert at the US-based Wilson Center.

Confusion in Seoul

A photo taken during an emergency meeting in South Korea on Thursday night showed a grim-faced President Moon Jae-in discussing the announcement with his advisers.

Trump hadn't notified the Blue House, South Korea's Presidential office, of his plans to cancel the summit before the announcement was made, catching Moon by surprise.

In a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said her government was very disappointed the summit wasn't going ahead.

According to South Korea's Foreign Ministry, Kang said the summit could have become a turning point in the bid for the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean papers plastered the news across their front pages on Friday. Multiple groups of protesters gathered outside the US embassy in Seoul to protest the decision, bearing signs saying "We want peace."

The unexpected decision will heighten the impression among South Koreans that the United States is an unreliable ally, Robert Kelly, professor of political science at South Korea's Pusan National University, told CNN.

"It will drive the South Koreans and the Americans apart ... Moon teed up what could have been one of the greatest deals in history and Trump blew it," he said.

Kelly said that while Moon had perhaps pushed too hard for the meeting to take place, and had staked much of his reputation on its success, the South Koreans were more likely to blame the United States than their own president. "My concern is that South Korea will be so disgusted at Trump's behavior we'll have a really nasty patch of alliance politics," he said.

Early on Friday morning, Pyongyang said it was still willing to meet with Trump, in a unusually subdued statement on state media.

Beijing buries the bad news

It took hours after every other country in East Asia had responded for Beijing to comment the news of the summit's cancellation.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in his daily briefing both the US and North Korea should show patience and goodwill going forward, and continue to aim for in-person talks.

The story wasn't even on the front page of the majority of the country's Chinese language newspapers on Friday morning. The Communist Party's paper of record -- the People's Daily -- buried it on page 21.

On the country's heavily-censored social media, most users discussed Trump's unpredictability and joked about falling property prices on the Chinese border with North Korea.

"People who invested in Dandong real estate are the real losers," one Weibo user said.

In the regularly provocative state tabloid Global Times, an editorial said the cancellation of the Singapore summit would hurt the United State's standing in the region.

"America's national image has been damaged ever since Trump announced his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The cancellation of the Singapore meeting will only enhance their negative image," the article said.

The abrupt decision to cancel the summit makes life much more complicated for Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' China Power Project.

"If tensions ratchet up between the United States and North Korea, then China will end up in the middle, being seen as working closely with the country which is the problem, not giving up its nuclear weapons," Glaser said.

Despite Trump's repeated allegations that Xi had encouraged Kim to push back against the Americans, Glaser said it was highly unlikely the Chinese President wanted to sabotage the summit.

At worst, she said it was possible Xi had wanted the North Koreans to demand an end to the US South Korean drills, in line with Beijing's policy. "I don't really see how this plays to China's advantage," she said.

An opportunity for Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on his way to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the news of the summit's cancellation was announced.

In recent months, Abe has been reaching out diplomatically to countries in the region, including China and Russia, to avoid being left out of the new diplomatic order on the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking in St Petersberg on Friday, Abe said while he was disappointed in Trump's decision, he continued to support the US President. "We are in complete sync on our policies," he said, adding he would be hoping to speak to Trump once he returned to Japan.

Koichi Nakano, professor of Political Science at Sophia University, told CNN the cancellation could be an opportunity for Abe.

"He may even try to use the current impasse as a vindication of his emphasis on pressure (on North Korea)," Nakano said, adding the Japanese PM could leverage the news to push his pro-military domestic policies.

Japan's newspapers were divided on where to cast the blame for the summit's cancellation.

The liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper called in its editorial for Trump to "not close the door of dialogue" while the conservative Sankei paper said Kim had underestimated the United States.

Yuka Arakawa, a 47-year-old accountant told CNN in Tokyo, she was shocked by the summit's cancellation. "Progress was being made because it was President Trump. I still have hope that there is a chance to make the summit happen, despite this tough situation," she said.

In public statements, both Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga displayed little disappointment at the development.

"What is important is not having the summit itself, but how the summit will serve as a chance to make progress on the missile and nuclear issue," Suga said.

Both Suga and Abe stressed the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea as the "most important" issue to Tokyo.

Both men called for the continuation of dialogue over the Korean Peninsula, with the cabinet secretary emphasizing the close relationship between the United States, South Korea and Japan.

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