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North Korea’s Second Thoughts on the Summit with Donald Trump

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On January 12, 1950, in the early moments of America’s tortured history with North Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a fateful speech at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C. It was a few months before the outbreak of the Korean War. The Cold War was intensifying, and there were gathering signs that North Korea was preparing to invade the South. What would America do in that event? Or, as Acheson put the question, in his speech, “What is our policy?”

He gave a thoughtful answer, and then added an off-the-cuff but historic comment. In the event of an attack, he said, “The initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it and then upon the commitments of the entire civilized world under the charter of the United Nations.”⁠ To Acheson’s critics, he had implied that the United States would not help repel a North Korean attack, and had, in effect, given a green light to Pyongyang and its backers, Russia and China. Indeed, in April, Joseph Stalin embraced North Korea’s plan for an invasion and, in June, ninety thousand Communist troops attacked. For years, Acheson was blamed for failing to telegraph America’s commitment to defend the South. Until his death, in 1971, he maintained that the criticism was unfair, because he was voicing America’s position at the time. But, to this day, his Press Club speech is cited as a case study in the perils of giving confusing signs to an adversary. Henry Kissinger later wrote, “Acheson presented an ambiguous account reflecting the current state of American indecision.” He added, “To the extent that deterrence requires clarity about a country’s intention, Acheson’s speech missed the mark.”

This week, the United States finds itself in a related predicament. On Wednesday, less than a month before Donald Trump is scheduled to meet Kim Jong Un for an unprecedented summit, in Singapore, North Korea stunned the White House by cancelling a meeting with South Korean officials, in protest of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. A few hours later, North Korea went further: it threatened to call off the summit with Trump, and condemned recent comments from American officials, specifically John Bolton, the national-security adviser. Kim Kye Gwan, a vice-foreign minister in charge of arms negotiations, said, “If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be


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