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Back to the future: North Korea policy returns to business as usual

Donald Trump in the Oval Office on May 17, 2018, and Kim Jong-un during the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
President Trump during an Oval Office meeting on May 17, 2018, and Kim Jong-un during the inter-Korean summit in Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. Photo: Saul Loeb/Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The cancellation of the widely anticipated Trump–Kim summit in Singapore represents the latest turn in a period of dramatic zig-zag diplomacy: Just a few months ago, the President was calling Kim "Little Rocket Man" and threatening to destroy his country, while Kim was testing missiles and talking about nuclear attacks.

The big picture: The future of North Korea policy is likely to look much like the past, and the recent spate of high-level engagement merely an aberration in the Washington–Pyongyang standoff.

What's next: With the prospect of a comprehensive denuclearization deal off the table for now, the Trump administration will likely get back to basics: resuming economic pressure, threatening force and ramping up rhetorical attacks. Pyongyang can be expected to issue belligerent statements, test weapons and possibly even try to detain a visiting American or two. China and South Korea will be the wild cards in the U.S. pressure campaign — they are necessary for it to be effective, but they may try to portray Trump as the intransigent party.

And the impasse — Washington wishing to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang wishing to keep them — will return in high relief.

Richard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security.

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