In remarks to reporters Wednesday morning, the president suggested that, before his arrival on the political scene, war on the Korean Peninsula was “inevitable.” By the afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that the United States was ready to “immediately” restart direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear program.
The mood seems a world apart from the tensions of a year ago, when Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rattled sabers at each other amid missile tests, atomic explosions and the conspicuous deployments of aircraft carriers. Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury" and mobilized an international campaign of “maximum pressure,” including stringent new sanctions.
Now, that united front has already cracked. Pyongyang is gaining back its economic lifeline with China, which has reopened its access to both legal and illegal trade abroad. U.S. officials recently bemoaned alleged Russian efforts to secretly transfer oil and other commodities to North Korean ships at sea. Nevertheless, Trump seems happy with the dip in tensions. “It’s very much calmed down,” Trump said this week. “We’re talking. It’s very calm. He’s calm. I’m calm.”
Trump has repeatedly insisted that the “maximum pressure” campaign compelled Kim to come to the table and paved the way for a potentially historic peace. But skeptics point to the dizzying, confused trajectory of White House strategy — which alternated threats and flattery, and insists on a “complete denuclearization” few have faith will ever come to pass — as a sign of an administration without a real plan. Now, Trump appears to be losing what leverage he had.
On Wednesday, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in stood side-by-side, hailing their hope for an "era of peace and prosperity” on the peninsula. The latest round of diplomacy between the two countries had been spurred by Moon’s desire to keep the momentum going following the airy agreements made in Singapore.
My colleagues sketched the outline of what Moon and Kim agreed: “In a joint statement, North Korea pledged to ‘permanently dismantle’ a missile engine test site and missile launcher at Tongchang-ri ‘in the presence of experts from related countries.’ That is a site the North Koreans had already promised to dismantle, although allowing in inspectors would be a step forward. North Korea also ‘expressed the will to continue taking further steps like permanent dismantlement’ of its main Yongbyon nuclear facility but only if the United States takes ‘corresponding steps’ based on Trump’s agreement with Kim at their June summit in Singapore.”
There were some concrete causes for optimism. “Wednesday’s developments . . . included other trust-building measures between North and South Korea, especially in the realm of military affairs,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng. “The two Koreas agreed to form a joint military commission, and to halt drills within 3 miles of the military demarcation line that divides the countries, part of a plan Mr. Moon said would ‘eliminate all risks that could lead to war.’”
That’s no small victory for the South Korean president, a liberal who has staked his presidency on building peace with the North. Moon also announced the possibility of a joint 2032 Olympic bid as well as enhanced economic cooperation between the two countries if Pyongyang makes further confidence-building measures. “Given the great wall of mistrust that Moon and Kim are attempting to tear down and the still fragile North-South relationship, the two leaders are right to adopt an incremental, step-by-step approach,” wrote Richard Sokolsky, a nonresident fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The next big step may include a visit by Kim to Seoul, another historic first. But the specter of Kim’s nuclear arsenal will still hover over proceedings. A host of arms control experts and Korea watchers were underwhelmed by the developments, arguing that there’s still no evidence indicating Pyongyang’s willingness to commit to actual denuclearization — something that Pompeo declared (to the derision of a few wonks) must be completed by January 2021.
“The history of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the ideological infrastructure that the Kim dynasty has built over the decades, and the regime’s own public statements strongly suggest that peace—from North Korea’s perspective—is achievable because it has nuclear weapons,” noted Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution.
The scholarly consensus is that Kim has little intention of wholly surrendering the stockpile of weapons that brought him face-to-face with the leader of the world’s sole superpower in Singapore. Many analysts also point to previous false dawns with Pyongyang, warning that even its current concessions hardly set it on the path to giving up its weapons.
“The world needs to remember that North Korea has other nuclear and missile facilities, and that these concessions will not necessarily limit or end their nuclear or missile programs,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, to my colleagues.
“The biggest concession North Korea is hinting at is ceasing producing of fissile material for weapons,” tweeted Nicholas Miller, a nonproliferation expert at Dartmouth University. “If this is ‘denuclearization,’ then the United States has been denuclearized for decades.”
“The fact that Kim is milking a single test-site for basically months on end is pretty remarkable,” MIT arms control researcher Vipin Narang told NPR, referring to the politicking over the Tongchang-ri facility.
What’s unique about this moment, argue some experts, is Trump’s personal zeal to score a geopolitical “win." Kim has shifted focus to talks about economic engagement and nonnuclear matters, even as Pyongyang shirks committing to a clear timeline over denuclearization or accepting proper verification of its nuclear capabilities. This suits Moon, for whom diplomacy with North Korea is about much more than nuclear weapons. Trump, too, seems happy to go down the current path.
"While Kim’s intentions remain unclear, a key question is whether or not the US is capable of advancing diplomacy,” wrote former State department official Michael Fuchs. “While Trump has thrown the U.S. head-first into diplomacy with North Korea — and may be the only top U.S. official who supports the process — he is also uniquely incapable of taking advantage of complicated diplomatic negotiations, and seems only interested in the appearance of success.”
In the event that Trump wants to get tough again, it’s not clear he has the tools to do so. North Korea’s deepening ties and renewed economic links with Seoul belie any maximum pressure campaign. So, too, the current trade battles between the United States and China, the country which retains the greatest influence over Kim. With Trump “hitting China with tariffs, China is less likely to help the president containing North Korea,” said Harry Kazianis, of the Center for the National Interest, to the South China Morning Post. "I think we can say the maximum pressure is over.”
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