North Korean traders in China say the decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to cancel a planned summit with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un has killed any chance for the resumption of key coal exports from Pyongyang to Beijing, and with it any hope for saving their country’s ailing economy.
The two heads of state were set to meet on June 12 in Singapore to discuss the North’s denuclearization in exchange for economic and security assurances after Kim requested talks with his U.S. counterpart, despite months of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.
But on Thursday, Trump called off the summit in response to what he said was “tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed by the North Korean leader in recent statements that have denounced top U.S. officials, including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
While the U.S. president left open the possibility of talks with Kim taking place at a later date, it is likely that North Korea will have to make considerable concessions to get Trump back to the negotiating table.
A North Korean trader based in China’s city of Shenyang, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Korean Service on Friday that he and his colleagues had expected that “if the North-U.S. summit went well, our current trade problems would be solved.”
But after hearing reports of the summit’s cancellation, he admitted that he “doesn’t know what is going to happen” to the North’s economy, which has been decimated by strict international sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s illicit missile launches and nuclear weapons tests.
The source said he was most surprised by Trump’s decision to forgo talks on the same day that the North had destroyed tunnels at its only known nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, as a sign of good will ahead of the planned summit.
“[Higher-level] trade representatives who came to work this morning were speechless and they didn’t look so good,” he said.
The source noted that Kim had visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in China twice in the past 40 days, signifying a thaw in relations between their two nations. Despite being the North’s greatest ally and trade partner, China had seriously enforced sanctions in recent months, putting the squeeze on Pyongyang and, according to some, forcing Kim to entertain negotiations with Trump.
“However, we traders only really cared that the meeting with the U.S. went well,” he said.
“We are aware that the U.S. holds the key to North-China trade, and now we are worried about the future.”
In fact, the trader said, he and his colleagues wondered if Kim’s trips to China and suggestions that the North could develop economically without the help of Washington “might have irritated the U.S.”
A North Korean trader in China’s Dandong city, who also asked to remain unnamed, suggested that Pyongyang was caught off guard by Trump’s decision on Thursday.
“North Korea invited international reporters and destroyed its nuclear test site yesterday because we desperately need negotiations with the U.S.,” he said.
“[North Korea’s] Central Committee ordered [trade workers] to prepare for coal exports [to China] to resume in June, so it seems like they fully expected a successful North-U.S. summit.”
The Dandong trader said that if news of the cancellation reaches North Koreans “the damage to [Kim’s image] would create a stormy atmosphere,” as many had hoped for the economy to improve following the summit.
“The highest priority task for North Korea is to calm the public, which is troubled by the poor economy, so our leadership is desperate to hold talks with the U.S.,” he added.
The trader said he had been based in China for “a long time,” but had “never experienced such a fast-changing situation like this before.”
If talks between the U.S. and North stall, he said, North Korea’s trade industry “will end up in an even worse situation,” and he and other traders will be ordered to return home.
Unaware of cancellation
Meanwhile, the vast majority of North Koreans remain unaware that the June summit has been cancelled, sources told RFA on Friday, while those few who had heard—after news began to trickle across the border from China—said they were largely “unsurprised.”
A source from North Hamgyong province, near the border, confirmed that he had heard of the cancellation, and admitted he had already harbored “some doubts in my mind about the meeting between the North and U.S. leaders.”
“As might have been expected, the summit in Singapore was cancelled,” he said.
“Kim Jong Un visited China and met Xi Jinping twice before the North-U.S. summit, but showing off the North’s friendship with China was not an appropriate way to prepare for a successful North-U.S. summit.”
The source said that North Korean citizens had been hoping for a successful summit and had high expectations for the type of economic development it could usher into their country.
He noted that Friday’s edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Worker’s Party, had carried a statement by the country’s Nuclear Research Center, which said that the North had ensured a halt of further nuclear weapons tests by “completely destroying” the Punggye-ri test site.
“However, residents doubt that the Supreme leadership would completely give up on nuclear,” he said.
A second source from North Hamgyong said that North Koreans had been told that the summit was arranged after “the U.S. begged for it,” so they were “confused” when news of Trump’s decision to cancel it began to leak in the border areas.
But he said that “only a very few people” are aware of the cancellation, and that most people “have no interest … because they are too busy trying to earn a living.”
“Many residents believe that Kim Jong Un will not give up on nuclear weapons even if the U.S. guarantees a bright future for North Korea in exchange for doing so,” he said.
“Because of this, they think it would be too difficult to hold a successful North-U.S. summit,” he added.
Reported by Jieun Kim and Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.