The Revenge of Expectations: Trump’s Rhetoric and Kim’s Missile Bases

The high hopes and inflated expectations of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea set by Donald Trump after his summit with Kim Jong Un are quickly coming unraveled.

Trump confidently declared an end to the nuclear threat from North Korea on the heels of the Singapore summit, and has since repeatedly declared that the United States is making progress in its efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

However, many arms control and nuclear experts have warned that the actual substance of the agreement between the United States and North Korea leaves much to be desired. North Korean promises to denuclearize are vague at best and there is no real system in place for verifying the few steps Pyongyang has already taken, such as dismantling an engine test stand and closing its nuclear weapons testing site. While Kim declared a moratorium on ballistic missile and nuclear testing, he has not agreed to give up any missiles or warheads. In fact, in his New Year’s address he explicitly stated, “The nuclear weapons research sector and the rocket industry should mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”  

There is a clear mismatch between Trump’s optimistic rhetoric and the actual state of U.S.-North Korea diplomacy. The North’s commitments are fuzzy at best and talks appear deadlocked as both sides refuse to budge until the other makes a concession. The discrepancy between rhetoric and reality risks turning unsurprising revelations about North Korea behavior into indictments that could sink U.S.-North Korea talks.  

One such unsurprising revelation that, thanks to Trump’s statements, is instead a politically potent cudgel is the news that North Korea has continued operations at undeclared missile bases while it has negotiated with the United States. This should not come as a surprise. None of the agreements North Korea has reached with the United States (or South Korea) since the start of 2018 mention anything about halting all missile operations. Furthermore, neither Kim’s New Year’s address nor his April speech to top officials in the Worker’s Party of Korea says that operations will cease.

However, Trump’s wildly inflated statements of success and victory mean that instead of a reasonable and measured reaction, media outlets are treating the news of ongoing operations at missile bases as a sign of North Korean perfidy. The New York Times, for example, said that the satellite imagery and report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Suggest that the North has been engaged in a great deception.” The article makes no mention of the fact that Kim has never stated or agreed to a complete freeze or abandonment of his ballistic missile capabilities, but it does contrast the North’s behavior with Trump’s optimistic rhetoric.

Keeping a watchful eye on North Korea is valuable and important, and the CSIS report itself is detailed and objective. However, thanks to the unrealistically high expectations Trump set at the outset of talks, the report is being spun as a black mark against Trump’s approach to North Korea. This unfortunate outcome could have been easily avoided. Trump should have been honest about the limits of the agreement penned at Singapore, and he should have heralded the summit as the start of a long process rather than a kind of finish line.

U.S.-North Korean diplomacy isn’t dead yet, but it faces some tough sticking points that will take time to resolve. Revelations that North Korea is moving ahead with activities that haven’t been explicitly limited or proscribed shouldn’t come as a surprise and shouldn’t be an excuse for the United States to walk away from the table.

It’s possible for Trump to achieve significant, long-lasting results via negotiations, but in order to do that he needs to set realistic expectations and tone down the triumphalist rhetoric. Continuing to declare victory without real results will only turn run of the mill news about North Korean behavior into the ammunition that hawks within the administration need to sink negotiations.