Kim Jong Un and President Trump (Anthony Wallace via AP)
Opinion writer

What just happened? That’s what everyone is struggling to figure out today after the brief summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. When I spoke today to Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, he was blunt: “I don’t think they accomplished anything except for a photo op.”

I’d put it another way: While we can hope that years from now we’ll look back and say that this was the beginning of the end for the North Korean nuclear weapons program, it’s far more likely that we’ll say that this was one more step on a road toward acceptance of those weapons. For both his own reasons and the hard realities of the situation, Trump probably just agreed that Kim can keep his nukes.

That’s not what he’s saying, of course. “He’s de-nuking, I mean he’s de-nuking the whole place,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.” But at a news conference in Singapore, he said, “You know scientifically, I’ve been watching and reading a lot about this, and it does take a long time to pull off complete denuclearization, it takes a long time. Scientifically you have to wait certain periods of time and a lot of things happen.” You know — scientifically.

But what did Kim actually agree to? The answer is: basically nothing. Let’s look at the joint statement that Trump and Kim signed. Here’s the heart of it:

  1. The United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

There’s also a commitment to hold more talks, but No. 3 is the key part: North Korea has committed to work toward denuclearization. What does that mean in practical terms? Whatever they want it to mean. Over a period of how long? A year? Five years? Five hundred years? However long Kim wants. North Korea has been making similar pledges for decades, while it continued right ahead developing bombs.

“It’s important to note that that is a weaker commitment to denuclearization than the regime has made in the past,” Murphy told me about the language in the statement Trump and Kim signed. “So that is a walk backward, not a walk forward.”

Murphy also sounded appalled that Trump announced that the United States will suspend joint military operations with South Korea. The concession, he said, “exposes how weak a negotiator our president is. We effectively gave up one of our most important chits in the longer term negotiation for nothing.”

Murphy also noted that Trump has signaled a willingness to remove some or all of our troops from South Korea and pointed out that this “risks providing a military gift to the Chinese as they seek to take control of the waterways through which our commercial shipping traffic moves.” When I asked if removing troops from South Korea should never be something we offer to North Korea or if it conceivably could be part of a package of security guarantees, he replied, “I don’t think it can be part of a package. All we know about the North Koreans is that they walk away from deals. What an enormous risk it would be to take U.S. troops out of South Korea under the promise of agreement compliance by the North Koreans.”

So what happens now? Let’s think about this from Trump’s perspective. He just came back from what he wants desperately to characterize as a huge success, so that’s precisely what he’ll do. He’ll say it was tremendous, fantastic, yuge, the greatest diplomatic victory in the history of human civilization. In the coming months, as the professionals try to work out concrete steps the two countries can take — a process that over the past few decades has produced endless frustration and broken promises — is Trump going to throw any wrenches into the works, say by tweeting nasty things at Kim and raising tensions again?

I seriously doubt it. Trump has plenty of other enemies he can pick fights with, and he wants to be able to pocket this as a victory, so he can say that he’s doing such a fantastic job because he cut taxes and moved toward getting rid of North Korea’s nukes. When people ask what the status of that denuclearization is, he’ll say, don’t worry, it’s happening, everything is going according to plan, it’s just that these things take time. Scientifically.

Remember, Donald Trump’s bottom line is always what’s good for Donald Trump. It’s going to continue to be good for him to say he succeeded with North Korea, even if the status quo doesn’t change. Complaining about that status quo six months or a year from now only makes him look like he failed.

Meanwhile, North Korea keeps its weapons. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that’s an unexpected catastrophe or that a different president could have produced a different outcome. All along, I’ve argued (as have many others) that there was just no way Kim would actually give up the weapons, when they’ve become not only a key repository of national pride but also the ultimate guarantee of Kim’s continued power and therefore his very life. From where Kim stands, holding on to his weapons at all costs is perfectly rational.

So one of the most difficult questions we confront is whether there’s anything we can offer that would induce Kim to give up his weapons. I posed that question to Murphy.

“I don’t know that it’s impossible,” he replied. “I think it’s likely impossible under this president. That is a very delicate, multilateral dance that this president has made clear he’s unable to orchestrate. … A deal ultimately likely includes actions undertaken by the United States, the South Koreans, the Japanese and the Chinese. How on earth does Trump pull that off?”