The high-stakes diplomacy between the United States and North Korea has come to a wrap in Singapore. The summit—the first-ever between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader—stayed mostly on-script.
But there’s little question that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un got the better end of the bargain out of the meeting; for Donald Trump, like previous U.S. presidents, the prospect of setting North Korea along the path to disarmament remains remote.
From the onset of the summit, which began with the much-anticipated first handshake between the two leaders at the Capella hotel in Singapore, it became clear that no matter what, North Korea would walk away with important propaganda coup.
From the arrangement of the flags to the seating arrangement at the bilateral sessions, there was little to distinguish this summit from one between two countries that share a decades-old hostile relationship and do not afford each other diplomatic recognition.
This was likely always going to be part of the package of offering to meet with a North Korean leader, which is precisely why previous U.S. presidents—all of whom could have offered to meet unconditionally with Kim Jong Un or his father or grandfather—chose to place a summit at the end of a diplomatic process with North Korea.
The idea was simple: Once North Korea had shown itself to comply in good faith with a process of implementing a robust agreement on denuclearization, it would receive the legitimizing capital associated with a summit with a U.S. president.
“'Better than nuclear war' shouldn't be the only yardstick we use to gauge the success of a summit like this.”
Instead, here we had Kim meeting Trump in exchange for little else than the release of three U.S. hostages in May. Though often framed as North Korean concessions to the United States, Kim made clear to highlight that his decision to close the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri and to enter a moratorium on testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles was a sovereign choice—one that North Korea was making as a result of becoming a mature nuclear-weapons power.
That, of course, brings us to the four-point Singapore declaration released by the two leaders. The document will be significant as the first to emerge out of a leaders’ summit between the United States and North Korea, but it does not stack up well against a long-running historical record of statements the two countries have put into writing.
The Singapore declaration was signed 25 years and one day after the June 11, 1993, U.S.-North Korea joint statement and underlined just how little the underlying structural factors that keep the United States and North Korea apart had changed in the intervening years.
What had changed in the meantime was North Korea’s capabilities as a nuclear power, which gave it all the more reason to run a tough bargain with Trump and negotiate as a country that had successfully developed multiple intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and thermonuclear weapons to place on them.
Unsurprisingly then, the only language on “denuclearization” that the two sides were able to agree to in a joint statement was complete pablum, building off the April 27 Panmunjom declaration between the two Koreas.
“Reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the Trump-Kim declaration notes. It eschews the U.S.-favored—albeit unrealistic—formulation of the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
But more seriously, this language only commits North Korea to the very same “complete denuclearization” that, in the Panmunjom declaration, approximates something like total global nuclear disarmament or bilateral arms reductions with the United States. And all North Korea will do, per the declaration, is work “towards” this objective.
But the language on denuclearization is the least concerning aspect of the Singapore declaration; it comports closely with pre-summit expectations that North Korea was not coming to Singapore to turn over the keys to its nuclear program.
The Singapore declaration predictably commits both countries to “establish new U.S.-DPRK relations” and to pursue a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Both of these points will support the April 27 Panmunjom process, initiated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but they throw the future of U.S. alliance with South Korea into flux.
More seriously, the agreement includes the following line: “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
We have few details on the nature of these guarantees—which are distinct from security assurances—but given that this accompanies North Korea’s vague commitment to denuclearization, it sets up the United States to follow through with serious adjustments to its military posture in the region. It’s not clear from the released text or any statements by Trump that North Korea’s conventional capabilities were considered in the course of talks on a security guarantee.
At the press conference at the conclusion of the summit, Trump announced that regular U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises—exercises that he chose to describe as “very provocative”—would be rolled back, granting Pyongyang a major concession.
The New York Times reported early Tuesday that the war games cancellation came as surprise to South Korea’s leadership—and the Pentagon. The AP reported Seoul’s presidential office told a reporter it was “trying to discern the exact meaning and intent of Trump’s comments.”
Viewed in the context of the momentum in U.S.-North Korea ties in late 2017—when talk of a U.S. military strike was growing worryingly common—the risks and costs of the Singapore summit seem entirely tolerable. The United States and North Korea have walked back from the brink and Trump, instead of threatening “fire and fury,” has suggested that he’d be willing even to invite Kim Jong Un to the White House.
But make no mistake: Viewed in the grand picture of decades of U.S.-North Korea relations, what just transpired in Singapore between the 45th president of the United States and the third North Korean leader was an asymmetric exchange.
Kim Jong Un goes back to Pyongyang with his long-desired photo op, having held on tight to his nuclear weapons and with no scrutiny whatsoever on human rights.
In the sense that the summit is an improvement over nuclear war, it was a success—Washington and Pyongyang will likely keep up a pageantry and bilateral momentum out of Singapore for some time. But “better than nuclear war” shouldn’t be the only yardstick we use to gauge the success of a summit like this.
Judged against 25 years of U.S.-North Korea joint statements, the Singapore declaration is a bust—for the United States, at least.
I’m often on the receiving end of the Trumpentariat’s criticisms of Never Trump conservatives.
Don’t I get it? Don’t I love how Trump is achieving the impossible, and soaring to heights to which no other president could aspire? Haven’t I gotten over the election yet? When, oh when, will I finally MAGA? I received an email Tuesday from a Trump fan asking why for once I couldn’t congratulate Donald Trump for his work with North Korea.
Leaving aside my usual critiques of Trump, which are, as you may have noticed, colorful, varied, and pointed, let’s give the president a fair assessment of his week’s activities, and thanks and credit where thanks and credit are due.
Of course, we start when Trump fled the humid confines of Washington, D.C., jetting to Quebec to blow up the G7 summit and take a massive political and rhetorical dump on some of our longest-standing and closest allies. But I’m playing nice, so thank you, Mr. President, for adopting 19th-century trade policies that combine both raging economic illiteracy and inevitably adverse outcomes for America. Well done.
Thank you, because nothing says Presidential Stature like your juvenile dick-waving and insults attacking the heads of state of the G7 nations. Thanks are also in order for deploying your clown-car motorcade of loudmouth, shock-jock aides to make the damage worse.
Great work taking direction from the Home Office in Moscow; you spent more time at the G7 summit doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding than you did strengthening the ties between the United States and our closest allies.
Even so, I’m supposed to thank the president, right? Well, thank you, Donald. You sent a message to our allies in Asia and beyond that you’re willing to compromise their security and ours for an inconsequential photo-op with a hopped-up fatboy dictator who looks like Pyongyang already has a Krispy Kreme and a Popeyes, and he’s the only one allowed to eat in them.
Russia, Iran, Syria, and other bad actors want to thank you, Mr. President. You sent the clearest of signals that sanctions regimes, inspections, and verified denuclearization are no longer relevant in our brave new era of nationalist populist strongmen and Michael Bay knockoff videos.
Evidently, all the bad guys have to do is kiss your ample ass long enough and shower you with enough superficial praise and they can play you like the trifling intellectual lightweight you most certainly are. So, thank you for that reminder.
Nobel Prizes may have been dancing in your head on your way to Singapore, and perhaps the Nobel Committee will fire up the forge and cast you an extra super-glitzy giant prize, out of gratitude. Perhaps the medal will make up for the fact Kim Jong Un took away every single thing he wanted from this meeting, including the propaganda coup of all propaganda coups.
Ever wonder what the consequences of legitimizing a nuclear-armed madman who has used chemical weapons on his own family, starved his people, and engaged in systematic mass murder to retain power might be? Congratulations! You’re about to find out. Us too.
Evidently, the purpose of the trip was to produce a communiqué so shallow, meaningless, and ephemeral that its contents were a combination of already-broken DPRK agreements and back-of-the-envelope wishcasting. Our South Korean allies may seem freaked out, but it’s just their way of appreciating you.
Well done, Mr. President. You got your on-camera handshake with a man who orders the deaths of children. You got your lunch with one of the few remaining dictators on this earth and put the Leader of the Free World on the same level as a hereditary thug who killed his half-brother with chemical weapons.
Good job, Mr. President. You’ve terrified our allies with your cavalier and sloppy art-of-the-moron negotiating style. You’ve told American troops who will remain on the Korean Peninsula they’re no longer going to practice with their Korean counterparts as a deterrent to the North’s long, long history of aggression. I’m sure if the balloon goes up, they’ll thank you for stopping their exercises.
Mission accomplished, Mr. President. You’ve set your fans up for a spectacular comedown when North Korea does what it always does. Right now, they’re cheering themselves hoarse, dancing in the streets, and believing to the bottom of their deplorable little hearts that you’ve denuclearized North Korea, brought Kim to heel, undone the evils done in the Hermit Kingdom for generations, and started building Trump Tower Pyongyang.
Hats off to you, Mr. President. You’ve cut the sinews of a strategic alliance with Japan and South Korea that has contained North Korea, and kept a brake on Chinese power in the Western Pacific.
Thank you, Mr. President, for reminding us that Kim Jong Un is talented. I couldn’t agree more. He’s talented at killing his uncles, half-brothers, cousins, and countrymen with poison, anti-aircraft guns, chemical weapons, and flamethrowers. He’s talented at starving his people, systematically reducing their life expectancy, health, and even height because of the chronic malnutrition his evil policies entail. He’s talented like his father and grandfather before him at rooking Western leaders. They’re talented at proposing deals they never had the slightest intention of keeping.
Heckuva job, Mr. President. No matter what a weapons-grade dumpster fire this week created, you’re safe from congressional oversight, but you know that by now. Nothing you do matters to this Congress. No matter what damage you inflict on our economy, our alliances, trade, our stature in the world, our role as an exemplar of democratic values, our ability to serve as an honest broker in the international community, and our security, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell will lay supine before you. (Supine is that position you usually have to pay for, hoss.)
Their evident, constant terror at running afoul of your volcanic temper, lunatic followers, and media cheer squad mutes their tongues and stays their hands even when they should know better. They should fear a world where America is isolated, mistrusted, and weaker economically, morally, and politically. They should worry the acid drip of your rhetorical and moral poison reduces American power and influence.
Instead, they fear their own president, hiding behind furrowed brows and elliptical, mealymouthed expressions of grave concern.
So congratulations, Mr. President. You spent the week deliberately wrecking American alliances and leadership, allied yourself with one of the most egregious enemies of freedom in the world, and abandoned the shared values of our friends like Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany.