President Trump insisted that the nuclear threat from North Korea was over. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to cover for the president, acting as though progress is being made on denuclearization and as though the president’s diplomacy at the North Korea summit marked a breakthrough. That’s all nonsense, of course. Kim Jong Un has given up nothing, keeps expanding his missile program, continues to create fissile material, got Trump to cancel joint military exercises with South Korea and has seen China loosen sanctions enforcement.
Now someone in the administration has finally fessed up. National security adviser John Bolton, who to his credit tried to prevent the disastrous one-on-one meeting between Kim and Trump, inadvertently (or not) let on that North Korea hasn’t done much of anything. In a Fox News interview (the most dangerous interviews are often on friendly turf), Bolton acknowledged: “The United States has lived up to the Singapore declaration. It’s just North Korea that has not taken the steps we feel are necessary to denuclearize.” Translation: So far it looks as though Trump was snookered.
Pompeo and Trump may have vowed to resume the joint military exercises if North Korea didn’t negotiate in good faith, but no exercises are planned even though North Korea shows no sign that it will live up to even its vaguest promises.
Unfortunately, Trump’s failed summitry managed to undermine the “maximum pressure” campaign, which was designed to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. The Los Angeles Times reports:
The visits by North Korean trade officials in Dandong, [China] along with a boomlet in Chinese tourists to Pyongyang and elsewhere in North Korea, are far from the only signs that Beijing is not waiting [to ease up on sanctions]. Instead, it has quietly begun loosening the screws on its long-time ally. U.S. satellite images and Japanese naval photos have captured suspected illicit ship-to-ship transfers of oil. And experts say North Korean workers are returning to jobs inside China, some under the guise of educational exchanges. Thousands of North Korean laborers also have entered Russia since the U.N. ban against new work permits last September, the Wall Street Journal has reported.
We shouldn’t be surprised that North Korea hasn’t come around. The Brookings Institution’s Jeffrey A. Bader and Ryan Hass explain:
[Pompeo’s] unproductive early July visit to Pyongyang showed that negotiating with North Korea demands that the United States be in a position to exercise leverage.
President Trump gave away much of that leverage in Singapore by treating the event as a spectacle, rather than an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a negotiation to denuclearize North Korea. The mere fact of granting a meeting to Kim was of course the largest concession, legitimizing the bloody dictator of an impoverished, isolated totalitarian state as a leader on the world stage. Trump’s spontaneous agreement to suspend major U.S.-South Korea joint exercises surprised the South Koreans and his own Defense Department. He issued a joint statement with Kim — one that fell well short of the 2005 Joint Statement on North Korea that had laid out the basic framework for denuclearization — rebutting the requests of his negotiators for more stringent language and ignoring the issue of North Korean missiles capable of hitting the United States, South Korea, and Japan. The only significant step North Korea has taken toward addressing U.S. and allied concerns has been its suspension of nuclear and missile tests, which Kim announced in the run-up to his April meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, not with President Trump. These failures in Singapore left Secretary Pompeo with the unenviable task of negotiating termination of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs beginning a lap behind the starting line.
North Korea’s intransigence likely will get worse as Kim finds support in China, Russia and perhaps elsewhere. (“Relaxing or lifting sanctions is of less negotiating value now than before. South Korea and China increasingly are shadow-boxing over who will secure a firmer toehold in North Korea’s economy, thereby reducing the sense of economic pressure Pyongyang previously felt.”)
In short, Trump’s Singapore triumph, as we have long pointed out, was no triumph at all. It made the United States weaker and our adversary stronger. U.S. national interests were sacrificed at the altar of Trump’s ego. Those spinning Trump’s performance and praising his deal-making once more look like fools. And “foolish” pretty much describes Trump’s entire foreign policy.