President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in June. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

When President Trump spent a few moments north of the demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea last month, he became the first U.S. president to visit North Korea. But that may wind up being a far less historic event than something else that appears to have happened in the truce village at Panmunjom: The United States accepted North Korea as a nuclear power.

No, the government did not do so officially, and Trump administration officials, if asked, would deny it. But it is hard to escape the sense that Trump has learned to stop worrying and love North Korea’s bomb.

After all, when Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un emerged from their 50-minute meeting at the demilitarized zone, the official remarks afterward made no reference to the nuclear issue. Not one. Nor did the readout of the meeting released by the North Koreans. While the U.S. side declined to provide its own readout, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo summarized the discussion by saying “Chairman Kim really wants to get something done” and then declining to elaborate on what that something might entail.

The issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons did, of course, come up in questions from reporters. But in contrast to past meetings in Singapore and Hanoi, where Trump had promised the rapid “denuking” of North Korea, this time, the president suddenly indicated he was “in no hurry” for Kim to abandon the bomb. In his news briefing, Pompeo emphasized Trump’s lack of haste, adding that negotiations would “proceed with — what’s the — what was it? — all deliberate speed.”

(That’s a little joke by Pompeo, by the way. He was searching for that specific phrase, because “all deliberate speed” means slowly, maybe never. The phrase is most associated with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Under Brown, the court ordered the desegregation of schools “with all deliberate speed” instead of the more immediate “forthwith” — setting up the drawn-out fight to desegregate schools that had a young Kamala D. Harris on that bus in 1969.)

This is quite a change for an administration that has repeatedly emphasized the speed with which North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons. After the Singapore summit, Trump claimed Kim was “denuking the whole place, and he’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.” Pompeo even released an official statement asserting that one round of now-forgettable meetings would “mark the beginning of … the process of rapid denuclearization of North Korea, to be completed by January 2021, as committed by Chairman Kim.”

Administration officials have consistently stated that this rapid process of disarmament must be completed before North Korea will receive any sanctions relief at all. When negotiations collapsed in Hanoi, they did so because North Korea wanted a partial lifting of sanctions immediately. Trump, by contrast, was still insisting North Korea “go all in.” When asked about the possibility of a smaller deal in the wake of that fiasco, Steve Biegun, the president’s special representative for North Korea, responded by repeating the mantra that had dominated the administration’s thinking about the purpose of this process: “What we were negotiating is the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

After Panmunjom, however, Trump suddenly seemed open to the idea he rejected in Hanoi. “Sanctions remain, yes,” Trump told reporters, “but at some point during the negotiations, things can happen. At some point, look, I’m looking forward to taking them off.” Trump’s comment appears to reflect a shift in thinking among administration officials, who appear to be contemplating some limited sanctions relief in exchange for much smaller steps from North Korea. Multiple news stories last week described an agreement under which North Korea would “freeze” — or maybe just slow — the production of new nuclear weapons. An ostensibly outraged national security adviser John Bolton denounced the leaks, claiming “Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”

Bolton’s ire is understandable. After all, he had been banished to Mongolia, while Tucker Carlson seemed to be guest starring in his job. But most importantly, a “freeze” is the dirtiest word in the history of negotiations with North Korea, at least if you are a Republican. When the Clinton administration negotiated a verifiable end to North Korea’s production of plutonium in 1994, Republicans immediately criticized it as a mere “freeze,” one that left in place the material for one or possibly two nuclear weapons North Korea might have accumulated before the deal. (Republicans in 2000 also believed that meeting with North Korean leaders was wrong and negotiating with them was appeasement.)

When Bolton and the rest of the Bush administration shattered the agreed framework — Bolton’s phrase, not mine! — they promised to negotiate a much better deal than Clinton’s freeze, one they described as providing for the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korea’s nuclear programs.” That never happened. When North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, the Bush administration settled for trying to negotiate a freeze. Administration officials literally invented a word — “disablement” — that kind of sounded like dismantlement so they wouldn’t have to call the freeze what it was.

So imagine how hopping mad Bolton must be that Trump appears to be considering the very approach he has long criticized. It is an anathema to everything Bolton has written or said about North Korea for the past two or three decades.

Which is to say, it is a very sensible idea.

It should be clear to everyone that Kim has no intention of abandoning his nuclear weapons. While U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly promised that Kim would disarm, the North Koreans have repeatedly made clear that is not in the cards. When Bolton promoted the “Libya model” for North Korea’s disarmament, North Korean officials explicitly rejected “unilateral nuclear abandonment” and ghosted their U.S. counterparts trying to prepare for the summit in Singapore. When U.S. officials revived the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” phrase, North Koreans refused to meet until the offending phrase was set aside. And when Pompeo tried to turn the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” into the denuclearization of North Korea, North Korea’s state media carried a commentary suggesting he take a geography lesson.

So, for the foreseeable future, Pyongyang plans to keep the bomb. But there’s no reason that should stop talks. When President Richard Nixon went to China, he didn’t plan to fly Beijing’s nuclear weapons back on his plane. He was prepared to deal with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the rest of Communist China as the nuclear power it was. Rather than a reason to end negotiations, the real possibility of a nuclear war with Pyongyang is a reason to continue talking — not about disarmament, but about building a different security architecture. North Korea has stopped provocative nuclear and missile tests and has expressed a willingness to close some nuclear facilities. These measures fall well short of the goal of disarmament, but they ought to be enough to earn sanctions relief and allow the process of diplomacy to play out. Disarmament, after all, is merely a means toward a much larger, more ambitious end state of reconstructing the security architecture of northeast Asia, replacing the armistice that ended the Korean War with a real peace agreement, inter-Korean reconciliation and reducing the historical animosities that remain toward Japan. It is only through this much larger process that we can achieve a peaceful and secure northeast Asia.

It is difficult to imagine Trump delivering on such an ambitious agenda, of course. But not having a nuclear war is a pretty good start.

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