In an alternative universe — let’s call it Earth 2 — the Singapore summit in June 2018 between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was swiftly followed by a full and complete accounting of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. Teams of lower-level U.S. and North Korean negotiators then spent the next seven months hammering out the details of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” — the goal set by the Trump administration. At every turn, the North Korean side proved more accommodating than expected. Clearly Kim was a different ruler from his father and grandfather. So determined was he to kick-start North Korea’s economic development that he was willing to give up the nuclear weapons that his regime had spent decades and countless billions of dollars developing.
Only a few final issues remained to be negotiated when Kim and Trump met again in Hanoi in February. But after several days of arduous, painstaking negotiations, the two leaders reached a breakthrough. And then, on June 30, 2019, Trump traveled to the demilitarized zone separating North Korea and South Korea to sign a denuclearization treaty with Kim. Shortly thereafter, teams of international inspectors began swarming all over North Korea to begin dismantling and carting away its nuclear, chemical, biological and missile facilities. Trump won the Nobel Peace Prize and claimed vindication for writing, after the Singapore summit, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
Back on Earth 1, needless to say, events have followed a different path. More than a year after the Singapore summit, North Korea still has not delivered an accounting of its weapons of mass destruction programs — the prerequisite for real progress on dismantlement. North Korea has continued to build nuclear weapons and missiles; it is now more dangerous than it was a year ago.
The only concrete concession from North Korea was to allow the repatriation of some remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War. But despite Trump’s efforts to pretend otherwise, North Korea has stopped cooperating with the Pentagon’s human-remains recovery teams. Trump touts the fact that North Korea is no longer testing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles — a test moratorium that began before, not after, the Singapore meeting — but it has continued testing shorter-range missiles. In return for North Korea’s forbearance from more provocative tests, the United States has discontinued major exercises with South Korea, degrading the allies’ military readiness.
The Hanoi summit was not the prelude to an agreement but was instead an embarrassing bust. Trump left early after Kim demanded the lifting of sanctions in return for the shuttering of only one of North Korea’s many nuclear plants. There have been no substantive talks in the months since, amid reports that some of North Korea’s negotiators had been purged and possibly killed. The only contact between the two sides was an exchange of what Trump called “beautiful” letters between him and Kim.
What, then, is the meaning of the surprise meeting between Trump and Kim on Sunday at the DMZ — and of Trump’s brief walk into North Korea? “Big moment, big moment,” Trump told Kim, adding, “Stepping across that line was a great honor. A lot of progress has been made, a lot of friendships have been made, and this has been in particular a great friendship.”
In truth, the “historic” meeting at the DMZ was symbolism utterly devoid of substance. It was a photo op. That’s it. The only agreement was to resume lower-level talks — you know, the ones that should have been going on for the past year. But those negotiations are likely to prove a road to nowhere.
If Kim has made anything clear in the past year, it is that he has no interest in denuclearizing — and why should he? He has seen what happened to leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi, who gave up their weapons of mass destruction, and he has no desire to emulate their sorry examples. What he wants is a relaxation of sanctions in return for shutting down a facility or two without in any way impairing his nuclear capabilities. Trump hasn’t given in; if he is desperate enough for a foreign policy achievement before the election, he may yet do so. But “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” is no longer on the table — and that phrase is no longer heard from any administration official. Instead, North Korea is achieving its goal of being accepted as a nuclear-weapons power.
Ironically, the three meetings between Trump and Kim have proved to be an impediment, not a lubricant, for negotiations, because Kim has realized that Trump is far more pliable — and gullible — than any of his aides. Trump’s subordinates complain about North Korean missiles tests and general intransigence; Trump does not. He is all too happy to enhance Kim’s legitimacy in return for, essentially, nothing. So the lesson for Kim is to ignore Trump’s subordinates and go straight to the big man himself. Which he just did again.
This makes for a great reality show but lousy diplomacy.