The Singapore summit was mesmerizing political theater. In this latest installment of "diplotainment," live from the Oval Office, U.S. President Donald Trump assured the American people that they could trust Kim Jong Un and that North Korea's supreme leader was sincere about denuclearization.
...Trump is certainly correct in pointing out that he made history in meeting amicably with his North Korean adversary. But it is yet to be determined whether he made a historic breakthrough or a historic blunder. No previous U.S. president considered it prudent to embark on summitry with so little preparation or on terms so favorable to the other side, let alone to promise to unilaterally discontinue defensive joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. For his part, Kim can rightfully boast that he has accomplished what his father and grandfather could only dream of: achieving the twin goals of building a viable nuclear weapons capability and then winning international acceptance as a "very honorable" peer, as he was referred to by the leader of the free world.
In the end, the joint statement that emerged from the summit is but a diluted version of numerous past aspirational documents put forward by North Korea and its negotiating partners. It lightly echoes inter-Korean agreements dating back to the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It contains watered-down versions of pledges in international deals such as the 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 joint statement of the fourth round of the six-party talks. It allows North Korea to slide from its previous commitment "to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and [return] at an early date to the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty]." And it offers a vague promise "to work toward complete denuclearization." This can hardly be construed as progress. The Singapore joint statement is worrisomely silent on ballistic missiles, let alone chemical weapons, cyberwarfare, nuclear proliferation, and (unsurprisingly) human rights.
In any case, even a robust joint statement could not serve as a reliable indicator of progress given North Korea's spotty record of compliance and follow-through. So at this point, what progress can each side credibly claim to have achieved based on its goals coming into the meeting?
North Korea's most urgent priorities were to loosen the stranglehold of sanctions and to reduce the risk of a U.S. preventive attack or a "bloody nose" strike, all without being forced to relinquish the "treasured sword," as Kim described them, of its nuclear weapons. Other priorities included using the lure of a peace treaty to undercut U.S.-South Korean military exercises and deployments, eroding the North's isolation and pariah status, and obtaining economic assistance and investment on terms consistent with regime control and stability. Pyongyang also hoped to alleviate the pressure on the nuclear issue and criticism of its human rights record by finding ways to fracture the solidarity among the five main players: China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Kim sought to play them off against one another and strengthen the "accommodationist" camp in South Korea, which sees the South's alliance with the United States as an impediment to inter-Korean rapprochement.
By these measures, the Singapore summit has capped an astonishingly successful spring for Kim.
Trump claims to have 300 powerful sanctions in his back pocket, ready to be deployed if North Korea behaves badly. But...the real pressure from sanctions lies in their vigorous implementation by the countries with which North Korea does business, notably China.
Trump's talk of a "bloody nose" strike scared Kim into backing down. :It's impossible to know if that's true. But even if the Kim-Trump "bromance" ends in disappointment, Washington will find it difficult to credibly leverage the threat of force in the wake of Kim's effective charm offensive. Trump would also face almost certain opposition to a strike from China, South Korea, and the international community. South Koreans, who would bear the brunt of U.S. retaliation, were skittish about a military option even when Kim was threatening to nuke them over the deployment of the missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. Today, polling shows that Kim is more popular in South Korea than Trump. Since it is hard to imagine an effective preventive attack against North Korea's nuclear facilities without the support of the South Korean government and military, it appears that Kim has significantly reduced the risk of a "bloody nose."
Trump's gambit at the summit seems to have played to Kim's advantage...North Korea has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in shutting down defensive (but "expensive," as Trump described them) U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. While Trump considers them expensive, North Korea refers to them as "provocative war games." Trump gave up this card without even asking for a corresponding halt of North Korean conventional exercises, let alone a complete stop to its nuclear and missile programs. A long-standing goal for the Kim regime has been to enmesh the United States in negotiations over a peace treaty, partly to push for the end of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and U.S. Forces Korea, in Seoul. But it's unclear if Kim even needs a peace treaty in light of Trump's emphatic desire to "get our soldiers out." One wonders which leader is more motivated to move U.S. troops off the Korean Peninsula-Kim or Trump?...
The Singapore summit has paved the way for South Korea to unfreeze valuable investment projects on terms that the North can control, and it will surely open the spigots of international aid. By blindsiding China, Japan, and Russia in March with his plan to meet bilaterally with Kim, Trump set off a race for influence with Pyongyang that has made Kim, so recently an outcast, the man to meet.
These outcomes seem certain to strengthen Kim's domestic standing and authority. Most important, the warm reception from the president of the United States has helped Kim normalize, if not legitimize, North Korea's status as a nuclear weapons state. Kim is not interested in the Libyan model; he's interested in the Pakistani model.
Finally, despite bromides about denuclearization and the showy demolition by Pyongyang of a nuclear test facility that the North Koreans themselves had declared obsolete, Kim's arsenal is no smaller than it was last November, when North Korea successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile that it claimed was capable of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead. All in all, this was a good first summit for North Korea...