President Donald Trump and North Korea’s “chairman” Kim Jong-un met in Singapore. Their unlikely, on-off-on summit simultaneously changed everything—and nothing.
Their time together was short, little more than five hours. Nevertheless, the president tells us, Kim is “very smart,” “very talented” and “loves his country very much.” One wonders if President Trump, George W. Bush redux, peered into the Korean leader’s soul and saw something warm and fuzzy. After all, said the president, they had developed a “special bond” and formed an “excellent relationship.” Just think of the connection the two men might have made had they spent an entire day together!
Proving that it is not only the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) which turns hyperbole into an art form, the two leaders declared that “the US-DPRK summit—the first in history—was an epochal event of great significance.” Unlike those past South–North Korean summits, which dissolved in the mists of time. What could better encapsulate the importance of the current proceedings than a tearful Dennis Rodman lauding the meeting between his “special friend” and America’s president? Surely that made the event epochal, if nothing else.
Although the summit is an inevitable target for snark, it nevertheless was a positive development. Most importantly, the talks were a welcome change from the hostile posturing and war threats which dominated relations between the two governments last year. Instead of insulting one another, the two leaders committed to peaceful cooperation and denuclearization.
Furthermore, it will be much harder for President Trump to again threaten military action, which could trigger a full-scale Second Korean War. Sen. Lindsey Graham might believe that such a conflict would be no big deal since it would be “over there,” but that would offer cold comfort to South Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese, whose nations could end up battle zones—as well as North Koreans—who should not be needlessly sacrificed because of their government’s policies. Moreover, plenty of Americans, military personnel in combat as well as civilians caught in the crossfire, likely would die in any conflict. Launching attacks in the hope that everything would work out just right would be playing a fearsome geopolitical game of chicken with potentially millions of lives at stake.
Because of the summit, South Koreans, whose attitude toward the North Korean dictator has changed dramatically, would be in no mood to risk pyrotechnics launched by Washington against a North which no longer looked so threatening. And how for the president to explain to the American people that aggressive war must be launched against someone he not long before embraced? Especially if Kim was playing the role of peacenik, no longer threatening to turn cities and countries into lakes of fire?
The meeting yielded some other benefits. For instance, China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping appeared discomfited by the possibility of being excluded from negotiations which could reorder Northeast Asia. The summit might also have exposed some fault lines in the DPRK: shortly before the meeting Kim replaced three top military leaders. Since taking power he has regularly shuffled the security leadership, but the mass removal was unusual.
Still, even optimists must find the summit’s outcome surprisingly thin. The joint statement was short and mostly rehashed previous promises, without detailing implementation. The president said that “some things were agreed and not reflected in the agreement,” but presumably anything important deserved formal recognition.
For instance, presumably the North will maintain its freeze on missile and nuclear testing. It appears that the United States may have informally agreed in turn to end military exercises, which the president said would be suspended so long as negotiations were ongoing. That’s actually a good trade for the United States, but the president apparently sought to deflect domestic opposition by keeping the deal off the books, so to speak. However, fudging commitments risks undermining denuclearization.
Ironically, the day before the summit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed previous agreements: “Many presidents previously have signed off on pieces of paper only to find that the North Koreans either didn’t promise what we thought they had, or actually reneged on those promises.” In this case Kim simply didn’t promise much of anything. When asked how his piece of paper was different from signed by past presidents, President Trump responded: “well, you have a different administration. You have a different president. You have a different secretary of state. You have people that are—you know, it’s very important to them. And we get it done.”
That obviously remains to be seen.
In fact, the United States gave up nothing of substance to get Kim to sign the statement. The North sacrificed little in return: the release of three prisoners who were more useful freed and destruction of a nuclear test site of dubious value. On a personal level Kim has gained the most, dramatically stepping onto the international stage, meeting the U.S. president as an equal, holding two summits each with China’s and South Korea’s leaders, and invited to visit Russia. Still, sampling life among the great and powerful might encourage him to stake his place by making future concessions. However, the meeting will prove “epochal” only if the general commitments are given effect.
With that in mind, the most important official promise was “to hold follow-on negotiations ... at the earliest possible date” to generate concrete results from the summit. Substantively, the United States and DPRK are in the same place they were on Monday, last month, last year and a decade before. It won’t take long for the warm feelings to fade quickly without both sides taking significant steps toward a stable, lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula. Such negotiations should quickly demonstrate whether Kim deserves the confidence placed in him by the president, who said that press conference that “I think he wants to get it done.”
In moving forward—apparently the president extended an invitation for Kim to visit the White House—it is worth keeping some important realities in mind.
First, North Korea is a challenge, not a crisis. There is no evidence that Kim is suicidal; to the contrary, like his father and grandfather, he appears to prefer his virgins in this world. Indeed, he demonstrates that, as Henry Kissinger once opined, even paranoids have enemies. Kim rightly fears the United States. He does not plan on attacking America, thereby guaranteeing his departure from this world in a radioactive funeral pyre. Washington deterred Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China. Washington can do the same to Kim's North Korea.
Second, the president's new bosom buddy is a tough character whose rule is less than genteel. Whatever, say, Justin Trudeau's foibles, he is not known for executing his opponents and maintaining large labor camps in Canada. The president is right to believe that the United States should engage the DPRK, but he should do so without illusion.
Third, while Chairman Kim appears genuinely committed to development, security remains his first priority. And the president is operating with a handicap—promiscuous U.S. intervention against weak states, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, failure to protect Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons, and his own administration’s willingness to toss aside the Iran deal and make a litany of tougher demands of Tehran. None of these encourage the DPRK to give up its leverage and hope for the brighter future the president speaks of. Washington should offer more than verbal assurances and paper guarantees.
Fourth, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could be helpful, but will want to see its interests protected. It will not promote reunification which strengthens America’s influence and turns the peninsula into another U.S. instrument to contain Beijing. Both the United States and Republic of Korea should act to assuage the PRC’s concerns.
Fifth, Washington must set priorities. And denuclearization is the most important objective. Without some resolution of the security challenge on both sides, significant improvement in the DPRK’s relations with its neighbors and respect for human rights internally is unlikely. Thus, the Trump administration should offer significant benefits for disarmament.
What to do from here? Establish regular diplomatic channels—best would be to inaugurate formal relations. That should be viewed as a form of communication, not a reward. Imagine having no contact with the Soviets during the Cold War. Had Chinese and U.S. diplomats talked in 1950, perhaps the two countries could have avoided a clash which prolonged the Korean War by more than two years.
Negotiations should begin on a peace treaty. That would be a significant symbolic step to demonstrate that the United States is not interested in forcing regime change in the North. Indeed, Washington should follow South Korea’s lead on this issue, since the latter has the most at stake in creating a stable peace.
The administration should promote travel and exchanges both ways. The United States should drop its travel ban and encourage North Korean visitors. In this way, Washington should play the long game and encourage the transformation of the North through social, economic and cultural contact.
Moreover, Washington should develop a list of steps desired by the United States, including denuclearization, other forms of disarmament, and improvements in human rights, and by the North, including end of sanctions, opening of trade, membership in international financial institutions, and “security guarantees” of various sorts. Then the administration should suggest various mini-deals on the road to denuclearization, striking agreements along the way. For instance, a North Korea which no longer tested missiles or nukes, capped its existing arsenal and allowed free access to inspectors would be a major improvement. As relations improved, the United States and its allied could continue pressing toward the ultimate goal of denuclearization.
Finally, the United States should put its troop presence in and alliance with South Korea on the table. American disengagement would provide a form of security guarantee to the DPRK while simultaneously ameliorating Beijing’s concern over Korean reunification. Seoul is more than able to defend itself from a non-nuclear North.
An added advantage would be to disentangle the United States from the day-to-day squabbles in Northeast Asia, leaving Washington freer to decide when vital interests truly were at stake. North Korea is a “threat” to America only because the United States is “over there,” intervening in what is essentially a Korean civil war. Otherwise Pyongyang would have little interest in America, and certainly no reason to threaten the United States.
For seventy years North Korea has been a seemingly intractable problem. President Trump deserves credit for his willingness to ignore critics even within his own party and meet Kim. Now comes the hard part. The president must demonstrate similar independence and determination in making the tough compromises necessary to strike more detailed agreements with North Korea, especially one to fully denuclearize. The task could prove impossible. But the attempt would be worth the effort.