President Trump got played.
After all the hoopla and pageantry and Trump braggadocio at the Singapore summit, with Kim Jong Un standing alongside the U.S. president in front of thousands of journalists, the North Korean leader came out the winner.
Kim had already racked up points just by standing alongside the U.S. president as an equal, showered with Trump’s praise and transformed from pariah to international rock star. In recent weeks he was welcomed to Beijing and Seoul, and invited to Moscow. China and Russia have already started to loosen sanctions.
All this might have been an acceptable cost for achieving the U.S. goal: to get Kim to commit specifically to shedding his nuclear weapons within a reasonable time frame, in a verifiable fashion. But, on this, Trump failed big time: The joint statement that emerged from the summit included no such firm commitments, using vague language on denuclearization that is interpreted very differently by the two sides. “It does not meet the minimum requirements in terms of what we expected them to do,” Ambassador Joseph Y. Yun, the former special U.S. representative to North Korea, told CNN.
Instead, Trump made a huge concession up front – stopping joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea, a key tool for keeping pressure on the North. And he didn’t even inform the Seoul government beforehand, leaving it publicly grasping for information on U.S. intentions.
“I gave up nothing,” the president insisted in a news conference. He was clearly oblivious to the fact that he was playing into North Korea’s longtime game plan: to emerge as an internationally recognized state, recognized by America and the world — without surrendering all of its nukes.
Let’s look at what the president did give up.
In the run-up to the summit, U.S. and Korean negotiators were wrestling over whether North Korea would make a substantial pledge of denuclearization up front, including details of its nuclear program and a timeline for dismantling it.
But, going into the summit, the two sides could not even agree on a common definition of the term denuclearization.
“Our definition of denuclearization is they give up all their fissile material, facilities, nuclear material taken out, irrevocably and verifiably,” says Jung Pak, top Korea expert at the Brookings Institution and a former senior CIA Korea analyst.
The joint statement, however, contained only a vague commitment to “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” – terminology favored by Pyongyang and Beijing. In North Korea’s interpretation, say North Korea experts, this means an end to the U.S. troop presence in South Korea and nuclear umbrella over that country and Japan – without any corresponding specifics on eliminating its own nuclear program.
By using this language – and ending joint exercises – Trump acceded to Kim’s game plan. He went even further, repeating his desire to pull U.S. troops out of Korea (although not immediately) and emphasizing his desire to save money by so doing. All this before North Korea makes any firm commitment to giving up its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
True, Kim has frozen his nuclear tests and missile tests – for now. And he has destroyed an already collapsing nuclear test site and promised Trump more on other sites. But none of this speaks to the onetime American demand that North Korean completely, irrevocably, and verifiably destroy its weapons.
Negotiations will now commence, but if the past is prologue, they could drag on for a very long time and never reach a firm conclusion. Meanwhile, U.S. leverage on North Korea is declining, as China and Russia start to loosen sanctions. A push for a formal peace between North and South Korea will weaken any future pressure. And Trump’s eagerness to halt joint military exercises – and remove U.S. troops – undermines U.S. leverage further.
>> READ MORE: Recap of summit and reaction as it happened
This gives North Korea little reason to swiftly negotiate an end to its weapons program. After all, the U.S. president has told the world that Kim is “very smart” and “honorable” and “wants to do the right thing.” Trump even sloughed off questions at the news conference about North Korean forced labor camps where thousands are tortured and murdered, saying such things happen elsewhere.
How embarrassing it would be for Trump to resume insulting the great Korean leader. Much easier to insult a democratic prime minister like Justin Trudeau.
The irony here is that, contrary to Trump’s exaggerated claims, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush got much more specific commitments from Pyongyang. In 1992, 1994, and 2005, the North Koreans pledged to eliminate all their nuclear weapons. They reneged.
When asked why he’d do better, Trump bragged: “This is a much different president.” Clearly this president believes his smarts will get results from North Korea, where previous presidents met failure.
The good news is that war on the Korean peninsula looks far less likely than a few months ago. But judging from the Singapore summit, it is Kim Jong Un who has mastered the art of dealing with Trump.