President Trump boasted last weekend that his “denuclearization deal” with Kim Jong Un could “save potentially millions & millions of lives!” He even proclaimed in the exhilaration of his return from Singapore : “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
But as the Great Dealmaker should know, it’s important to read the fine print. And after a week’s reflection, the Singapore joint communique, for all the dramatic television coverage that surrounded it, looks like what real estate mavens sometimes call a “conditional offer.”
The condition, in this case, is that North Korea deliver on its somewhat fuzzy pledge to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The discussion of how and when this will happen has barely begun. In the meantime, to build confidence, Trump has agreed to halt joint military exercises with South Korea, and Kim has agreed to stop testing missiles and nuclear bombs.
Trump clarified the conditional nature of the military-exercise pause in a tweet Sunday: “Can start up immediately if talks break down, which I hope will not happen!” (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled this same caveat last week during a visit to South Korea, noting that if the denuclearization talks fail, the freeze on exercises “will no longer be in effect.”)
The halt in exercises will have a limited effect on U.S. readiness in the event of an actual conflict with North Korea, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stressed during an interview last week. He explained that about 90 percent of the U.S. forces that would be involved in any such conflict are not based in South Korea and, thus, would be able to train and prepare normally, even without joint exercises.
Being honest about what was achieved in Singapore is important, not to diminish Trump’s accomplishment, which is real and substantial, but to make clear what must come next. Usually, a summit is the conclusion of meticulous detail work; in this case, the order is reversed: Trump and Kim have had their handshake; now their aides start the grunt work.
Robert Carlin, a veteran CIA and State Department analyst of North Korea, argues that worrying about having the big guys’ get-together first “is a little silly.” For decades, he explained in an email, the United States has known it needed to engage the North Korean leader directly to make any progress. “Okay, we got to the leader and, in effect, established a floor for working-level talks. . . . That’s not a bad thing,” Carlin noted. The goal now “should be to nurture this rather than crush it through constant carping.”
Trump’s consigliere in closing the deal will be Pompeo, who has emerged from the Korea diplomacy as Trump’s paramount aide. The North Koreans haven’t yet specified their emissary; experts say that if someone who really knows about Pyongyang’s nuclear program is chosen, as opposed to a less-informed diplomat, it will be a positive sign of seriousness.
China and Russia are also scrambling to dip their spoons in the post-Singapore pudding, with Kim in Beijing this week and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in heading for Moscow. That is fine; it’s a sign they don’t want to be left out of U.S.-led diplomacy.
If we think about what’s ahead as a business negotiation, it illuminates the nature of the exchange. Trump wanted a North Korean commitment to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.” He didn’t get it in Singapore. Instead, the communique speaks only of “complete denuclearization.” Words matter here: The monitoring needed for a truly “verifiable” and “irreversible” pact would alter North Korean society.
The North Koreans want what we might call a “complete, verifiable, irreversible guarantee” that Kim’s regime will survive and prosper. As an Asian diplomat told me this week, this guarantee will become real only when thousands of Americans are living and working in Pyongyang. This, too, would mean a very different North Korea.
One potential sticking point in future bargaining is the sequence in which the conditions are fulfilled. The communique listed them in this order: establish mutual “relations”; build a “lasting and stable peace regime”; and “work toward complete denuclearization.” Just as words matter, so does their order. Carlin noted that, in Kim’s public message on his way to Singapore, he listed these same three points, in the same order.
What matters most now is rapid follow-up. If Trump thinks he has done the heavy lifting, he may lose patience and move on. One Asia diplomat explains his worry this way: “There’s a danger Trump will lose interest, and the situation will become worse than before if North Korea doesn’t show some real steps.” Carlin agreed that progress in the next three to four months “will be crucial.”
Real estate experts say that is the inherent problem with a conditional offer. If the deal doesn’t close quickly, it can blow up — leaving both parties frustrated and angry.