With a few days to digest the outcome of the meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un now a wrap, what can be said about the summit? For one, it could have been worse. The two leaders, who famously traded insults for much of the fall of 2017, seem to have developed a congenial relationship. There was legitimate fear that, between the escalating rhetoric, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, the end result would be a mushroom cloud. While the odds of war were still generally low for a variety of reasons, the risk seemed elevated enough to create legitimate concern. Fortunately, the summit does seem to have led to a diplomatic process. That said, not allowing reckless behavior to escalate to a nuclear war is the lowest of bars by which something can be judged.
So with the prospect of conflict between two nuclear-armed states receding, at least for the moment, here are three thoughts on the summit and a recommendation for what comes next.
First, the consensus among experts seems to be that the summit produced no tangible results, with the vague promises of North Korean denuclearization in the statement fall short of even the unrealized promises North Korean leaders have made to past American presidents. There is also little indication of agreement over what “denuclearization”actually means. Traditionally, Americans have viewed it as North Korean disarmament, while Pyongyang believes it should also encompass American extended deterrence. Nor was any timetable given for when the Kim regime would give up its nuclear arsenal or a mechanism for verification articulated (though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this morning that they were looking for disarmament to take place over the next two and a half years). As Mira Rapp-Hooper of Yale University wrote after the summit, the lack of specifics in the joint statement means the “loophole remains big enough for a road-mobile ICBM.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly said that it wants the “complete verifiable irreversible denculearization” (or, CVID) of North Korea. And, in remarks to the press released yesterday, Pompeo stated clearly that, though the joint statement did not include the words “verifiable” or irreversible,” they were encompassed by the word “complete.” However, in a testy exchange, the secretary of state would not provide clues about how the administration hoped to achieve verification. Doing so is notoriously difficult in authoritarian states like North Korea due to limits on their willingness to be transparent.
According to President Trump, North Korea will also destroy a site for testing rocket engines. However, no indication of which test site was given at the time. The agreement on the test site was not included in the joint statement because, according to the president, he secured a pledge from Kim after it was already signed. However, this morning, it was reported that North Korea will destroy a test facility at Tongchang-ri, and analysts are calling it a significant concession (though some have expressed mild disagreement about the significance of the facility to North Korea’s nuclear program at this point).
In return, President Trump agreed to suspend joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises because he said they are provocative and costly. As I noted on Twitter, Trump’s attitude toward exercises is bizarre. While the president may be right that the exercises are provocative, he also stated plainly his desire to end them because they are too expensive. He went further on Twitter today, claiming the United States would save a “fortune” by forgoing them, but according the Government Accountability Office, the combined cost of three military exercises in the Pacific region in 2015—only one of which took place in South Korea—was just $34.5 million (h/t Paul MacDonald).
There is also a question of whether offering to suspend exercises was a spur of the moment addition by the president. Reports say that neither the South Koreans, nor U.S. Forces Korea were informed beforehand. President Moon might be okay with that given that he has been the driving force behind these talks, but U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been adamant that the U.S. military presence in South Korea is not going anywhere.
There are reasonable arguments to be made for trading military exercises—even the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula—for a peace agreement and North Korean nuclear disarmament. But it is also reasonable to ask how much value they have as a bargaining chip now that the president has publicly stated he would like to be rid of them anyway?
Second, Trump continues to show his affinity for authoritarian leaders over America’s democratic allies. The president lavished praise on the North Korean dictator. He bizarrely claimed that Kim loves his people and that his people love him. Given the country’s gulag system, and the desperate measures some North Koreans take to defect from the country, the president’s statement is in many ways grotesque. That the president gushed over the leader of a brutal and murderous regime to a perplexing degree is particularly strange in juxtaposition to Trump’s treatment of America’s allies at the G-7 summit just a few days prior. Nor does it seem to have bought the United States any additional concessions in the talks. While it is perfectly reasonable for a U.S. president to sit down with leaders of unsavory regimes if it means deescalating a crisis or achieving some other positive outcome, but one would hope they would be more circumspect when doing so.
Third, President Trump has already claimed that the summit is a major achievement—tweeting yesterday morning that the nuclear threat from North Korea is no more. This claim is inexplicable—not a single missile or warhead has been dismantled—but it should not be unexpected. And while we should all be pleased that a diplomatic process is taking place, this summit represents the beginning of it—at best—not the end.
And what is the likely outcome of that process? It is difficult to say for sure, but experts are not sanguine about the prospects for North Korean nuclear disarmament. As political scientist Vipin Narang and nuclear weapons analyst Ankit Panda wrote yesterday for the New York Times that North Korea stepped onto the world stage in Singapore and walked away recognized as a nuclear power. Narang and Panda write,
North Korea declared its nuclear weapons force technologically complete at the end of 2017, with its third successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Now, less than a year later, North Korea’s nuclear power is politically complete, thanks to the legitimacy that comes from a handshake with an American president. Mr. Kim did what neither his father nor grandfather could do before him: sit down and negotiate with a president of the United States. The Singapore summit meeting looks indistinguishable from a meeting between the leaders of two states with normal diplomatic relations. But this is far from where Washington and Pyongyang have ever stood. It was Mr. Kim’s development of nuclear weapons — and the credible means to deliver them to America — that made the meeting possible.
In a rare moment of self-awareness after the meeting, President Trump noted that he may realize down the line that he was wrong to put his faith in the North Korean leader’s words. During his press conference after the meeting, the president said, “I think he will do these things. I may be wrong. I may stand before you in six months and say, hey, I was wrong. I don’t know I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some excuse.” If Narang and Panda are right, and Kim Jong-un proves as unwilling to follow through on his vague promises as his predecessors given the credibility and legitimacy they now provide him, the president finding some excuse to cover up what will then be a failed summit will likely be the best case scenario.
Assuming negotiations will continue though, Secretary of State Pompeo needs to focus on getting the process right. President Trump’s post-summit triumphalism suggests he may be ready to spike the football and move on. However, Pompeo has been at the helm of this effort since taking over at Foggy Bottom. And that might be for the best. As Rapp-Hooper writes, “there is no substitute for a good national security process.” I have always been skeptical of that claim, but Trump’s chaotic approach to the negotiations (which allowed Pyongyang to, if nothing else, score major propaganda victories) has put that belief to the test. If the negotiations move forward, and the United States is willing to make concessions that present a realistic opportunity for denuclearization, then it is imperative that some type of process is in place to ensure both the U.S. military, and its allies in the region, are informed and prepared.