It sure looks as if President Donald Trump was hoodwinked in Singapore.
Trump made a huge concession – the suspension of military exercises with South Korea. That’s on top of the broader concession of the summit meeting itself, security guarantees he gave North Korea and the legitimacy that the summit provides his counterpart, Kim Jong Un.
Within North Korea, the “very special bond” that Trump claimed to have formed with Kim will be portrayed this way: Kim forced the U.S. president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades.
In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely “reaffirmed” the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.
“They were willing to de-nuke,” Trump crowed at his news conference after his meetings with Kim. Trump seemed to believe he had achieved some remarkable agreement, but the concessions were all his own.
The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didn’t contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this. For now Trump has much less to show than past negotiators who hammered out deals with North Korea like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which completely froze the country’s plutonium program with a rigorous monitoring system.
Trump made a big deal in his news conference about recovering the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War, but this is nothing new. Back in 1989, on my first trip to North Korea, officials there made similar pledges about returning remains, and indeed North Korea has returned some remains over the years. It’s not clear how many more remain.
Trump claimed an “excellent relationship” with Kim, and it certainly is better for the two leaders to be exchanging compliments rather than missiles. In a sense, Trump has eased the tensions that he himself created when he threatened last fall to “totally destroy” North Korea. I’m just not sure a leader should get credit for defusing a crisis that he himself created.
There’s still plenty we don’t know and lots of uncertainty about the future. But for now, the bottom line is that there’s no indication that North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons, and Trump didn’t achieve anything remotely as good as the Iran nuclear deal, which led Iran to eliminate 98 percent of its enriched uranium.
There was also something frankly weird about a U.S. president savaging Canada’s prime minister one day and then embracing the leader of the most totalitarian country in the world.
“He’s a very talented man,” Trump said of Kim. “I also learned that he loves his country very much.”
In an interview with Voice of America, Trump said “I like him” and added: “He’s smart, loves his people, he loves his country.”
Trump praised Kim in the news conference and, astonishingly, even adopted North Korean positions as his own, saying that the U.S. military exercises in the region are “provocative.” That’s a standard North Korean propaganda line. Likewise, Trump acknowledged that human rights in North Korea constituted a “rough situation,” but quickly added that “it’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.” (Note that a 2014 United Nations report stated that North Korean human rights violations do “not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”)
Incredibly, Trump told Voice of America that he had this message for the North Korean people: “I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well.”
It’s breathtaking to see a U.S. president emerge as a spokesman for the dictator of North Korea.
One can argue that my perspective is too narrow: That what counts in a broader sense is that the risk of war is much less today than it was a year ago, and North Korea has at least stopped its nuclear tests and missile tests. Fundamentally, Trump has abandoned bellicose rhetoric and instead embraced the long-standing Democratic position – that we should engage North Korea, even if the result isn’t immediate disarmament.
The 1994 Agreed Framework, for example, didn’t denuclearize North Korea or solve the human rights issues there, but it still kept the regime from adding to its plutonium arsenal for eight years. Imperfect processes can still be beneficial, and the ongoing meetings between the United States and North Korea may result in a similar framework that at least freezes the North Korean arsenal.
Of all the things that could have gone badly wrong in a Trump administration, a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea leading to a nuclear war was perhaps the most terrifying. For now at least, Trump seems to have been snookered into the same kind of deeply frustrating diplomatic process with North Korea that he has complained about, but that is far better than war.
Even so, it’s still bewildering how much Trump gave and how little he got. The cancellation of military exercises will raise questions among our allies, such as Japan, about America’s commitment to those allies.
The Trump-Kim statement spoke vaguely about efforts “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” whatever that means. But that was much less specific than the 1994 pledge to exchange diplomatic liaison offices, and the 2005 pledge to work for a peace treaty to end the Korean War.
In January 2017, Trump proclaimed in a tweet: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” But in fact it appears to have happened on Trump’s watch, and nothing in the Singapore summit seems to have changed that.
All this is to say that Kim Jong Un proved the more able negotiator. North Korean government officials have to limit their computer time, because of electricity shortages, and they are international pariahs – yet they are very savvy and shrewd, and they were counseled by one of the smartest Trump handlers of all, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea.
My guess is that Kim flattered Trump, as Moon has, and that Trump simply didn’t realize how little he was getting. On my most recent visit to North Korea, officials were asking me subtle questions about the differences in views of Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley; meanwhile, Trump said he didn’t need to do much homework.
Whatever our politics, we should all want Trump to succeed in reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and it’s good to see that Trump now supports engagement rather than military options. There will be further negotiations, and these may actually freeze plutonium production and destroy missiles. But at least in the first round, Trump seems to have been snookered.
Nicholas Kristof can be contacted at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.