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Trump-Kim Summit

What happens if Trump 'walks away' from Kim summit?

Experts divided over prospects for diplomacy or military action

US F-22
A U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet lands as South Korea and the U.S. conduct the Max Thunder joint military exercise at an air base in Gwangju, South Korea on May 16.    © AP

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump has reiterated that he has not ruled out abandoning his much anticipated summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, leading many to question what the fallout of a breakdown in talks would be.

Trump said he was "totally prepared to walk away" from the meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12, at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday. "I did it once before," he added.  

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that Trump would "not stand for a bad deal," and that "complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" would be the only acceptable outcome. Pyongyang has so far made no firm commitments in this regard.

Experts appear divided on the consequences of a potential breakdown in negotiations.

According to Bruce Jones, vice president and director of the Brookings Institution's foreign policy program, the risks of war are paradoxically "higher now than before the drive to the summit." 

"The contemporary history of peace negotiations is riddled with examples of failed diplomatic processes leading directly to heightened escalation or dramatic conflict," Jones had earlier written in April in the Nikkei Asian Review. The failure of a summit could substantially undermine the option of diplomacy and "put us directly on the pathway to military conflict," he warned. The main proponent of the summit -- Trump -- is also the main proponent of military solutions to the conflict, he added.

Former British ambassador to North Korea John Everard concurred. "There's a risk that things will go wrong," he commented. "And if they go wrong, they might go badly wrong."

In a worst-case scenario, he said, "people in the White House will start to talk again about military strikes. I really hope that doesn't happen, but in today's White House that's entirely possible."

Others say a sudden reversal of the current atmosphere of rapprochement is very unlikely, especially as memories are still fresh of how close the two countries got to a second Korean War last year. The fear, at the time, was that North Korea's repeated ballistic missile tests would eventually force the U.S. to take military action, which North Korea would interpret as an attack on the regime, and begin a nuclear war.

The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University has estimated that a nuclear attack on Tokyo and Seoul would kill 2.1 million.

"The U.S. government will continue to leave a path to diplomacy open," predicted Michael Bosack, a regional security expert and former deputy chief of government relations for the U.S. Forces in Japan. "The cost of military conflict is too great to close the door on alternatives."

The cost would not be limited to the loss of lives. The world's biggest and 11th biggest economies -- the U.S. and South Korea -- are guaranteed to be embroiled in any conflict, and so are the second and third economic powers -- China and Japan. The effects of large-scale conventional warfare on the Korean Peninsula would be a shock to the global economic system, Bosack said.

It would also "provide a window for an opportunistic revisionist power to exploit other regions of the globe" while the rest of the world is focused on resumed war on the Korean Peninsula, he added.

That leaves either diplomacy or a continued campaign of pressure on North Korea as the favored course of action for the U.S.

Diplomatic efforts are also likely to be pushed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has made it his personal mission to bring Washington and Pyongyang together and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.

"It should be expected that the less interested in diplomacy the Trump White House becomes, the more adamant the Moon administration will be in pushing for continued diplomacy," Bosack said.

Bosack argued that a return to the pressure campaign, backed up by the U.S.'s overwhelming military strength, would be the most likely scenario in the event of the talks breaking down.

"We have a list of over 300 massive, in some cases, sanctions to put on North Korea," Trump said on Thursday. "And I've decided to hold that until we can make a deal, because I really believe there's a potential to make a deal."

"I don't want to use them unless it's necessary. And I don't think it will be necessary, but we will soon know."


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