AFTER ABRUPTLY canceling a summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump might have been expected to seek some concessions from the North Korean dictator before agreeing to reschedule. Yet as he announced Friday that the June 12 meeting in Singapore would go forward, it was, to all appearances, Mr. Trump who had softened his position. No longer was he suggesting that Mr. Kim would agree to the quick and complete surrender of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Instead, he said, Singapore would be “a get-to-know-you kind of situation” and the beginning of “a process.” Though North Korea has still offered no public commitment to denuclearization, Mr. Trump dropped his vow to apply “maximum pressure” to the regime, saying, “I don’t want to use that term because we are getting along.”
The president did say that he had received a “very nice” and “interesting” letter from Mr. Kim — only to add that he had not read it. That nicely encapsulated the apparent result of his off-again, on-again diplomacy: a show of goodwill by North Korea in exchange for a substantive shift in U.S. posture. A week earlier Mr. Trump was saying the regime had to get rid of its nuclear arsenal “over a very short period of time.” On Friday his message was: “We’re going to start a process. And I told them today, ‘Take your time.’ ”
Those who favor a diplomatic process with North Korea, as we do, might be encouraged by Mr. Trump’s stand-down. As experts have been warning for months, it was wildly unrealistic to expect that Mr. Kim would quickly agree to the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” the administration demanded. Rather, Pyongyang envisions a multiphase process that would offer rewards to the regime for each step. That was the structure of previous deals, all of which collapsed after the North pocketed U.S. concessions and cheated or reneged on its own commitments.
The question is whether Mr. Trump and his aides have a strategy for avoiding a repeat of that result. The rushed nature of the diplomacy — serious talks between experts from the two sides began only in the past few days — certainly raises doubts, as does Mr. Trump’s account. On Friday he was asked whether he was willing to sign a peace treaty with the North formally ending the Korean War, a key Kim regime goal. “That could happen,” he replied. But in exchange for what? A formal peace between the United States and North Korea, one of the world’s most brutal, aggressive and unpredictable regimes, should not precede full denuclearization.
In all, Mr. Trump’s fervid pursuit of a diplomatic breakthrough is preferable to his previous belligerent bluster. Slowing down the process is a bow to reality and therefore a step in the right direction. But diplomacy works only if you know where you want to go. The administration still needs to set clear interim goals short of full denuclearization that serve U.S. interests. A North Korean commitment to permanently end nuclear and missile testing could be one; another would be the full disclosure by the regime of its arsenal, backed by inspections. A showy “get - to - know - you ” meeting, granting recognition and standing to a criminal regime, would be a disappointment in the absence of such tangible North Korean steps.