The historic summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un is behind us and it continues to receive both praise and criticism. There is reason for both. First, the praise. Trump’s maximum pressure campaign helped create the environment for talks that seem like they could be even remotely productive. We have long been told there is “nothing left to sanction” in North Korea, and yet, the president’s national security team was able to rally partners and allies to increase sanctions, even getting China to cooperate in a way, although still imperfectly, that it has not in the past.
Trump’s threats of military force seem credible. Previous presidents made veiled threats about “all options” being “on the table” but few people believed them, least of all the Kims. It is this, perhaps, more than sanctions, that incentivizes Kim to consider making a deal with Trump. It is telling that the president wanted national security adviser John Bolton in the room with him during the more extensive talks with the North Korean leadership, even though the North Koreans have singled him out for criticism. Having Bolton in the room is like having an aircraft carrier on display and sends a message that Trump is willing to flip the switch, so to speak, if the North Koreans prove unwilling to negotiate in earnest.
Trump’s brassknuckle New York businessman approach to international affairs and his apparent disdain for process norms broke the mold and created diplomatic space that made progress towards a peaceful solution seem possible, even if still improbable. Negotiations will now continue between the two sides, and we will see in the coming months if those talks result in the necessary developments to begin dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program.
It is remarkable to reflect that mere months ago, Trump and Kim were trading personal insults and boasting about the size of their respective nuclear arsenals. Then suddenly, the president accepted Kim’s offer to meet, only to result in Trump cancelling it, forcing Kim to respond publicly with a conciliatory letter, which led to Trump agreeing to the summit once again. It is impossible to imagine the more cultivated politicians having the guts to make such on again, off again public changes as the circumstances changed.
Lastly, the U.S. team verbally remained steadfast through the summit to its repeated commitment to complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear missiles. The president has repeatedly stated that there will be no cash for North Korea, no sanctions relief, and that the threat of increased sanctions and even military force remain very real, and the North Koreans were willing to go through with the summit. North Korea even released American prisoners weeks before, made good on the promise to hold off on nuclear and missile testing, and partially destroyed a nuclear testing site, as demonstrations of “good faith.”
Now for the criticism. Most concerning, the statement Trump and Kim signed was vague, and the point on denuclearization painfully weak. The vagueness of the “commitments,” serve little purpose since the terms are not defined, neither are timelines established. The administration has rightfully said the goal is immediate CVID, and yet, there was no mention of CVID in the document. While North Korea’s refraining from nuclear and missile testing is good, it is only part of the equation. Testing improves reliability of those systems, but building out the quantity of those systems also makes its nuclear missile force more formidable and a greater strain on U.S. defenses. It is entirely possible that North Korea is busy producing more missiles at this minute within the depths of its mountains.
The United States did make a concession to encourage Kim to stay on board with talks, and that was a release of diplomatic pressure. The president made a shift from heated rhetoric to, not merely more temperate rhetoric, but to downright effusively flattery of Kim. In response to a reporter’s question about possibly offering Kim a future where he is on “equal footing” as the United States, Trump said, “I don’t view it that way … If I have to say I’m sitting on a stage with Chairman Kim and that’s going to get us to save 30 million lives, could be more than that, I’m willing to sit on the stage. I’m willing to travel to Singapore very proudly, very gladly.” Maybe so, but it is disquieting to see such pageantry for a meeting between the leader of the free world and a merciless dictator who tyrannizes his subjects, and if denuclearization is not achieved, it will be one of the moments in American history remembered with great shame.
Finally, the United States committed to ceasing joint military exercises with South Korea for the time being. These exercises ensure the preparedness of the U.S.-South Korea militaries in the event of a conflict with North Korea and show the strength of the alliance in the face of aggression. Thankfully, military exercises can begin again on a moment’s notice. But Trump’s remarks about those exercises were concerning. The president called them “provocative” and “expensive.” Joint ally military exercises are stabilizing, a means of deterring aggression and provocations, and they are more than worth the price of peace.
In the end, it is just too early to know the effects of Trump’s efforts. Talks between the United States and North Korea will continue in the coming months, but it should be clear very soon if Pyongyang is actually willing to completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear missile program. If Kim makes that strategic decision to take his country down a more peaceful path and willingly gives up his “treasured sword,” it is difficult to imagine anyone seriously saying the prices the president was willing to pay were too high.
If Kim Jong Un does not make the decision, does not begin dismantlement, and the United States greenlights “maximum pressure 2.0,” nobody can credibly claim President Trump did not give talks a serious effort.