Elephants in the Room
Kim Got What He Wanted in Singapore. Trump Didn’t.
The G-7 and Singapore summits have put on display breathtaking strategic incoherence and appalling moral vacuity on the part of the Trump administration.
Thomas Barrack is a witty and self-effacing friend and ally to U.S. President Donald Trump. They met as young commercial real estate investors, when Barrack was attempting to sell the Plaza Hotel in New York City on behalf of billionaire Robert Bass. Trump met the asking price, but then the discussion turned to contingencies. According to Barrack, he told Trump that there could be none, “Because I know you, Donald Trump, will find a thousand things wrong with [the property] and by the time we are done, and we’ll go back and renegotiate this purchase price, I’ll end up with jujubes in my hand.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left the summit with Trump in Singapore on Tuesday with four of his longstanding objectives met. Trump got little in return. First, Kim, a 34-year-old brutal totalitarian leading a famished country, met as an equal the leader of the most powerful nation on earth — an accomplishment that eluded his father and grandfather. Second, Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK.” Third, he agreed to halt U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Fourth, Kim has reversed the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” — witness how China is already pressing for sanctions relief. Whether or not the United Nations Security Council takes such action is irrelevant, because Beijing controls the trade flows to North Korea and will now likely ramp them up again.
In return, Kim made only a vague promise to “work towards” the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, with no details on timing or verification. This commitment is far less specific even than the past promises the North has broken. For example, in the September 2005 joint statement issued at the six-party talks, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards.” The 1994 Agreed Framework also committed Pyongyang to abide by the nonproliferation treaty and to implement IAEA safeguards. (Kim also this week ordered the dismantlement of a missile test stand used to develop medium-range systems, but it is by no means clear that this will impede North Korean programs.)
Worse still, the North defines denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula primarily in terms of restrictions on U.S. systems. Although former President George H.W. Bush ordered the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea in October 1991, a July 6, 2016, statement of the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea set five conditions defining denuclearization, all dealing with U.S. forces. One objective of the April meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim was to look for evidence that these conditions had been reversed. South Korea found no such evidence. In contrast, the United States defines denuclearization as the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programs. So even in agreeing to denuclearization, the United States and North Korea mean different things.
Summits, especially those between adversaries, demand careful and detailed preparations. The Reagan-Gorbachev meetings, which ultimately succeeded in providing enormous political and security benefits, were supported by a rigorous policy development process, lengthy and ongoing negotiations in Geneva, and frequent meetings at the foreign minister level. Remarkably, Trump asserted that such work is unnecessary. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done,” he said last week.
The G-7 and Singapore summits have put on display breathtaking strategic incoherence and appalling moral vacuity on the part of the Trump administration. U.S. allies, who share U.S. values and interests, are alienated, and U.S. adversaries, who despise American freedoms, are comforted.
Sadly, Trump walked away from the Singapore summit with mere jujubes in his pocket.