The two leaders agreed to begin a diplomatic process to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That is certainly preferable to the slide toward war that appeared to be underway last year, and it can be hoped that it will eventually lead to steps by North Korea to dismantle its arsenal. But Mr. Trump has placed a large bet on a cruel and unpredictable ruler whose motives and aims are far from clear — and who has shown no sign of altering North Korea’s commitment to nuclear weapons or its deceptive negotiating tactics.
By far the most substantive result of the summit was Mr. Trump’s sudden announcement of a freeze on U.S.-South Korean military exercises — a concession that apparently took the South Korean government and the U.S. military by surprise. With backing from China and Russia, which seek to diminish U.S. strategic standing in Asia, North Korea has long sought an end to the exercises — and until Tuesday, this and previous U.S. administrations had flatly rejected the idea. Now, Mr. Trump has adopted it — and, remarkably, used Pyongyang’s language in describing the “war games” as “provocative.”
Mr. Trump portrayed his concession as an exchange for North Korea’s destruction of a test site for missile engines. But that demolition took place before the summit — and is in no way comparable to the freezing of exercises, which could signal that the U.S.-South Korean security relationship is up for negotiation alongside North Korea’s arsenal. Mr. Trump’s further contention that stopping the maneuvers “will save us a tremendous amount of money” will deliver another shock to Asian and European countries that depend on the United States for defense.
Compared with that gift, North Korea’s commitments at the summit look meager indeed. A joint statement said Mr. Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That language is actually weaker and less specific than what Pyongyang offered in several previous agreements — which it then flouted. North Korea’s definition of denuclearization, as laid out in numerous previous talks with U.S. officials, envisions a far-reaching U.S. strategic retreat, including the removal of the American defense umbrella from both South Korea and Japan. There was no mention in the statement of U.S. terms for disarmament: not a word about verification, or irreversibility, or timelines.
The diplomatic process that will now begin ought to be aimed at delivering tangible North Korean commitments and meaningful actions. The United States should be seeking a full declaration of the regime’s arsenal and nuclear facilities, as a start; without it, showy demolitions of test sites are meaningless. And Mr. Trump should refrain from offering Mr. Kim any further unilateral concessions.