SEOUL, South Korea — President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel his top diplomat’s planned trip to North Korea underlines the dangerous spillover potential of the U.S.-China trade dispute.
The surprise decision came a day after U.S. and Chinese negotiators ended two days of meetings after failing to break the deadlock over trade.
It was a blow to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who introduced a new special envoy to the North on Thursday and said the two would travel to Pyongyang “next week” amid stalled nuclear talks.
Trump also linked the move to his growing spat with Beijing, which has roiled financial markets and global commerce.
North Korea, meanwhile, accused Washington of “double-dealing” for reportedly conducting a drill in Japan that was reportedly a rehearsal for an invasion of the North in case diplomacy failed.
The United States “is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said Sunday.
The exercises could not immediately be confirmed.
Trump tweeted that he asked Pompeo “not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
He also said diplomatic efforts had been hindered by a lack of support from the North’s main economic benefactor China, blaming that on the growing trade dispute between Washington and Beijing.
“Secretary Pompeo looks forward to going to North Korea in the near future, most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved,” he said.
“In the meantime I would like to send my warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim. I look forward to seeing him soon!”
The problem, experts said, is that the trade dispute isn’t likely to be solved soon.
Trump’s administration is preparing tariffs on $200 billion more of Chinese products. Beijing, meanwhile, has said it will garget $60 billion in American goods.
No plans for further talks were mentioned after negotiators failed to reach an agreement last week.
“Trump still seems to think that this trade war is going to lead to an easy win,” former State Department official YJ Fischer wrote in a commentary for CNN.
“It’s no surprise that we’re seeing the diplomatic consequences of our deteriorating relationship with China,” she added.
The president pressured China to do more to rein in its smaller communist ally by enforcing tough economic sanctions as tensions over the North’s nuclear program raised fears of a new war last year.
Beijing, which accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, complied by suspending coal and textile imports among other measures.
But recent reports show it has eased up amid the new detente that reached its peak with an unprecedented U.S.-North Korean summit on June 12 in Singapore.
Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Washington-based Arms Control Association, blamed what she called Trump’s pattern of raising unrealistic expectations.
“Yes, China can and should do more to continue enforcing sanctions,” she said in a telephone interview.
“But it’s better coordination and consultation with China that will solve that problem – not tying the trade dispute to the North Korea issue or throwing Beijing under the bus as a spoiler for the talks,” she added.
Trump and Kim made history by holding the first-ever summit between their two countries, which have been locked in conflict since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
But critics warned the two sides remained far apart despite the summit agreement to “totally denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”
Pompeo, who has traveled to Pyongyang three times since the diplomatic process started earlier this year, has been unable to nail down specific details and timelines.
His most recent visit to Pyongyang in early July was seen as a failure that included a snub from Kim Jong Un, who reportedly visited a potato farm instead of meeting with the top U.S. diplomat.
Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill praised the decision to cancel the upcoming trip, saying it looks like Trump “has begun to worry about #NorthKorea intentions.”
“Good decision especially if otherwise Pompeo would have returned empty handed,” Hill said in a tweet.
North Korea has taken steps, including halting nuclear and missile tests, blowing up its main nuclear testing facility and returning what it says are the remains of U.S. servicemembers killed in the war.
The two sides are deadlocked over North Korea’s demand for reciprocal action, including the lifting of punishing economic sanctions and a formal end to the war.
Meanwhile the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s atomic watchdog, expressed “grave concern” about the North’s nuclear program last week.
Commercial satellite imagery from Aug. 16 also showed that previously reported efforts to dismantle a main missile launching site have halted.
“No significant dismantlement activity has taken place at either the engine test stand or the launch pad” of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station since Aug. 3, according to 38 North, a monitoring website.
Those were the latest in a series of revelations indicating the communist state is continuing with its nuclear and missile development in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Trump has hinted that he was preparing for a second summit with Kim and many have speculated the two men could meet on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week.
There has been no confirmation that the third-generation North Korean leader will attend the international meeting.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in also has been preparing for a third summit with Kim since their landmark first meeting on April 27.