WASHINGTON — Trump got played. That’s the consensus that emerged among journalists, Democrats on Capitol Hill, critics of the administration, nuclear nonproliferation experts and foreign policy wonks mere hours after President Donald Trump wrapped up his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump gave up too much and got too little, the argument goes, and accomplished little more than a vague reformulation of past promises.
But the critics of Trump’s outreach to North Korea ignore a key fact: Less than a year ago, Trump and Kim were trading personal insults and threatening to take their countries to war. It’s too soon to tell whether Trump’s concessions to Kim were worth the risk — but given the administration’s past stance, it’s worth holding off on declaring the gambit a failure.
“What would you rather have? Confrontation or the possibility of a peaceful path forward?” said Joel Wit, a former State Department official who helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea. “The problem is most people seem to have forgotten what it was like seven or eight months ago, with all the tests, the fear of nuclear war.”
Trump had given North Korea watchers plenty of reason for skepticism. It was his tweets, after all, that had America wondering last year if the country was on the brink of nuclear war. When Trump decided he was interested in talking to Kim, he didn’t seem concerned with diving into the details of nuclear nonproliferation policy. His administration backed away from nominating Victor Cha, a well-respected Korea expert, as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, after learning that Cha opposed preventive military action in North Korea. Trump later appointed as national security adviser John Bolton, who has repeatedly called for bombing North Korea. And weeks before the meeting with Kim, Trump briefly backed out of the summit entirely.
The outcomes of Tuesday’s summit were also imperfect. After receiving a superstar’s welcome in Singapore, Kim agreed to destroy a missile engine testing site. Pyongyang said it had already halted its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and possibly destroyed one of its nuclear weapon test sites. All of North Korea’s moves are either easily reversible or hard to enforce.
In return, Trump handed Kim a publicity win and promised to halt joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. Both concessions, Trump’s detractors argue, were too big.
Most people seem to have forgotten what it was like seven or eight months ago, with all the tests, the fear of nuclear war. Joel Wit, former State Department official
Kim and his predecessors have long sought a meeting with the U.S. president, and the North Korean regime will undoubtedly argue the summit means the U.S. is finally treating Kim as if he’s on equal footing. But due to a lack of political opposition or free press in North Korea, it’s not hard for the Kim regime to spin any outcome as a win. And there’s not much evidence that North Korea’s ability to propagandize its own people affects the perception of the regime outside of its own borders.
The largest problem with Trump’s “concession” to halt joint military exercises with South Korea is that he doesn’t appear to have coordinated the move with the U.S. military or with allies in Seoul.
But it’s hard to immediately determine the effects of Trump’s promise, since he didn’t detail the specifics of his plans. Even Trump’s own vice president appeared confused about what the president exactly meant. U.S. forces in South Korea have “received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises — to include this fall’s schedule Ulchi Freedom Guardian,” Lt. Col. Jennifer Lovett told The New York Times.
Even if Trump does intend to completely suspend the joint training exercises later this year, he wouldn’t be taking an unprecedented step. The U.S. canceled a large joint military exercise called Team Spirit as part of nuclear negotiations in the 1990s, recalled Wit, who is now a fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. That kind of decision is easily reversible; when negotiations went badly with Pyongyang, the U.S. ramped up other military exercises until they resembled the canceled war games.
Part of the critique of Trump’s performance at the summit stems from the president’s indefatigable habit of inflating his own successes. For the past several years, Trump has trashed the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and boasted he could get a better deal with North Korea.
Political opponents have tried to beat Trump at his own game. Last week, seven top Democrats signed a letter laying out a series of parameters for what they would view as a successful deal. They called for “anywhere, anytime” inspections within North Korea and for removing all nuclear weapons and fissile material from the country.
Those demands resembled what Republicans pushed for when the Obama administration was pursuing negotiations with Iran, but they aren’t realistic, or even necessarily desirable, said Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official who worked on arms control issues. No country is likely to surrender to such intrusive inspections — and it is preferable to dismantle and destroy nuclear weapons in-country rather than ship elsewhere, she said.
Trump told reporters after the meeting that the joint statement signed by the two leaders “is very comprehensive, it’s going to happen.” That’s demonstrably false. The joint statement is vague and contains mostly general promises to work toward peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula — promises Kim and his predecessors have repeated over the past several decades.
Critics have also argued that Trump’s accomplishments don’t even live up to nuclear nonproliferation agreements of the past, such as the Iran deal or the Agreed Framework. Nuclear nonproliferation agreements take years to finalize. President Barack Obama made diplomatic engagement with Iran a priority when he entered office in 2009. His administration didn’t reach a deal until 2015.
So rather than comparing Trump and Kim’s joint statement to past nuclear nonproliferation agreements, it should be compared to other joint statements reached at early stages in negotiations — like the similarly vague June 11, 1993, joint statement that preceded the 1994 Agreed Framework.
It’s hard to imagine that the Trump administration will have the discipline to slog through years of technical discussions — or the temperament to withstand inevitable setbacks. But it’s too soon to judge the effort as a failure. But given the war-mongery rhetoric of the past several months, Trump’s newfound enthusiasm for diplomacy is a reason for cautious optimism.
Even Cha, whose ambassadorship was halted by the Trump administration, described the meeting with Kim as a step in the right direction.
“In the case of North Korea, there are never good policy options — there are only choices between the bad and the worse,” Cha wrote in The New York Times. “But despite its many flaws, the Singapore summit represents the start of a diplomatic process that takes us away from the brink of war.”