The Trump-Kim Summit Explained

It was the photo-op seen around the world. An American President and a North Korean dictator, hands clasped before the flags of the two countries. It is an image that will be long remembered, either as a symbol of colossal folly or the dawning of a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Which it will be is hard to tell.

In President Trump’s estimation, the summit was all a smashing success. “People thought this could never take place,” Mr. Trump said in a news conference following the summit. “It’s a very great moment in the history of the world. And Chairman Kim is on his way back to North Korea, and I know for a fact that as soon as he arrives, he’s going to start a process [of denuclearization] that’s going to make a lot of people very happy and very safe.”

But, what was actually accomplished in Singapore, aside from that soon to be iconic photo is less clear. The joint statement released following the summit was mostly aspirational promises to get along better, give peace a chance, and keep talking. North Korea did commit to returning the remains of American POWs and MIAs from the Korean War, which is nice. But, there was little in the way of concrete commitments.

The statement reaffirmed the pledge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made in the April summit with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-into,  to work towards the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But, there was no agreement reached about what that actually means, much less how it will be achieved. We are still a long way from the “complete, verifiable, irreversible, disarmament” the Trump Administration has set as its ultimate objective.

Will This Time Be Different?

North Korea has repeatedly promised to give up its nukes in the past, and without exception, it has done nothing of the sort. In 2005, the Six Party Talks yielded a similar joint statement in which North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” North Korea staged its first nuclear test a year later. 

Mr. Trump contends that this time will be different. He says that North Korea didn’t take his predecessors seriously the way they do him. “I don’t think they’ve ever had the confidence, frankly, in a president that they have right now for getting things done and having the ability to get things done,” Trump said in his press conference. Mr. Trump believes that he will succeed where other Administrations failed, because….well, he’s Donald Trump and they are not. “I don’t think they honestly could have done it even if it was a priority. And it would have been easier back then,” Trump added.

Cocksure swagger aside, the truth is  that North Korea is more willing to come to the table now because Mr. Kim calculates that he is now holding a much stronger hand. Having tested a nuclear weapon and a missile capable of delivering it to U.S. shores, North Korea can now claim a credible intercontinental nuclear capability. For Mr. Kim, engagement with the U.S. is about achieving recognition of his place in the nuclear club, not trading it away for some sanctions relief and economic aid.

North Korean commitments for denuclearization should not be taken to suggest that they intend to give up their nukes unilaterally. The joint statement, in referring to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” broadly, rather than North Korea specifically, hints at this.

President Trump holds an  a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, delivered to him by North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol in the Oval Office on Friday. (Shealah Craighead/The White House)
President Trump holds an a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, delivered to him by North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol in the Oval Office on Friday. (Shealah Craighead/The White House)

The summit almost blew up before it happened after Pyongyang’s furious reaction several weeks ago to National Security Advisor John Bolton’s suggestion of Libya, which gave up all its weapons of mass destruction in exchange for sanctions relief, as a model for North Korea’s disarmament. “[W]e are no longer interested in a negotiation that will be all about driving us into a corner and making a one-sided demand for us to give up our nukes,” North Korea’s foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, said in a statement threatening to pull out of the summit. Mr. Trump beat him to the punch and canceled first. But, after some shuttle diplomacy that involved a peculiarly large letter to Trump from Kim Jong Un, things got back on track.

When Kim talks about denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, he means the removal of U.S. troops and perhaps the withdrawal of the protection of the U.S. nuclear arsenal from U.S. regional allies like Japan and South Korea.

North Korea has invested enormous resources for many years in developing nuclear weapons because they believe that membership in the nuclear club makes their claims of being a great world power seem more real. Mr. Kim believes his nukes give him leverage to throw his weight around on the world stage and security lest anyone get bright ideas about regime change. It’s hard to see what the U.S. could reasonably give that would be worth giving that up.

Allies and Enemies

There’s been much made of the contrast between Trump’s aggressive stance towards America’s historic allies at the testy G7 meeting in Canada in the days before the summit and his relatively warm approach of North Korea’s leader.

This contrast reveals an important insight about Mr. Trump’s approach to foreign policy. He views foreign relationships not in terms of a system long-term alliances, but rather the benefit of these relationships to America in the immediate term.

In Trump’s view, some G7 allies are taking advantage of the U.S. in terms of trade. While that point is debatable, to him, this defines the relationship to a far greater extent than the historic alliance between that country and the United States. To Trump, the history of the relationships matter little. What matter is what is to America’s advantage now.

When it comes to North Korea, and even Russia to an extent, where relations are quite strained, Mr. Trump believes engagement can only improve these relationships, with a net benefit to America.

What Happens Next

In the short term, this approach may look like it is panning out, but Mr. Kim may simply be seeking to ride this wave of good feelings as far as it will take him, giving the impression that things are leading towards disarmament, but stopping short of actually giving up his nuclear weapons.

It is likely that Mr. Kim will make a good show of dismantling weapons development infrastructure, which he can explain to internal audiences as  no longer needed because North Korea’s weapons program is complete. The demolition of tunnels and various buildings at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the lead-up to the summit is one example. And President Trump, in his press conference, said that Mr. Kim also committed to dismantling a missile test facility.

Still, there’s reason to be wary. North Korea has a history of showy demolitions of nuclear facilities that turn out to be meaningless. In 2008, North Korea blew up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor in spectacular fashion. But, this turned out to be a ruse. North Korea simply restarted the reactor using water pumped from a nearby river to cool the reactor instead.

Whether Mr. Kim is sincere or not, North Korea is already reaping the benefits. The Singapore summit was a propaganda coup for Mr. Kim and a de facto recognition of North Korea’s newly-minted status as a nuclear power. And there were tangible benefits too. Mr. Trump said he had agreed to halt “war games,” military exercises between North and South Korea (which Mr. Trump said were too expensive anyway).

For Mr. Kim, Singapore was a triumph that would never have been possible without his nuclear arsenal — which is a pretty good reason to suspect that he may not give it up so easily.

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