North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and President Trump shook hands for the cameras in front of a row of alternating U.S. and North Korean flags, as they began their historic summit meeting in Singapore shortly after 9 am local time on June 12, 2018. President Trump told reporters in brief remarks before the start of an approximately 40-minute one-on-one meeting, with just translators present, that he “felt really great” and that it was “an honor” to meet Kim Jong-un. “We’re going to have a great discussion,” Trump said. “We will have a great relationship.” Kim Jong-un declared, “Well, it was not easy to get here. The past worked as fetters on our limbs, and the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward. But we overcame all of them, and we are here today.”
Following their private meeting, the two leaders walked to a larger room to be joined by their respective advisers, and then attended a working lunch. The historic summit concluded after about five hours with a joint statement in which President Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The joint statement described the summit as “an epochal event of great significance in overcoming decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries and for the opening up of a new future.” The two leaders agreed to “follow-on negotiations, led by the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and a relevant high-level DPRK official, at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes of the U.S.–DPRK summit.” More summit meetings may be in the offing.
President Trump made not a single concession in the lead-up to the summit, except perhaps to meet face-to-face with the North Korean dictator in the first place. North Korea, by contrast, released three American hostages and destroyed a nuclear weapons testing site. Kim also told President Trump that North Korea would destroy a missile engine testing site. During a post-meeting press conference, President Trump reciprocated North Korea’s prior unilateral gestures by announcing a freeze, while negotiations continue, on joint military exercises with South Korea that he deemed “provocative” and “tremendously expensive.” However, although the president said he hoped to “bring home” the 32,000 US troops stationed in South Korea down the road, such a withdrawal was not “part of the equation right now.”
There was no mention of providing North Korea with any sanctions relief now or in the near future, although China reacted to the summit with the suggestion that the United Nations Security Council might consider suspending or lifting its sanctions against North Korea if North Korea demonstrates compliance with UN resolutions and progress continues in the negotiations. China is already reported to have loosened its own enforcement of the sanctions currently in place. China and Russia are likely to press for the formal easing of sanctions as a good faith gesture, possibly with some support from U.S.’s European allies who always appear ready to take the word of dictators as they have done with the Iranian regime.
The Trump administration must not retreat from its current hard line of keeping the sanctions fully in place until North Korea verifiably eliminates its nuclear weapons capability. Although Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made this point very shortly before the summit meeting, there is some concern that President Trump is beginning to waffle. He said in his news conference that the U.S. could begin to lift sanctions against North Korea before “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. Although the president said the U.S. wants the denuclearization process to be carried out “as fast as it can, mechanically and physically,” and continued to emphasize the importance of effective verification, he added that “once you start the process, it means it’s pretty much over, you can’t use them (nuclear weapons). There will be a point at which, when you’re 20 percent through (the denuclearization process), that you (North Korea) can’t go back.” This kind of talk is worrisome. Hopefully, Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Bolton will persuade President Trump that a lot more than 20 percent of denuclearization is needed before there can be any consideration of sanctions relief.
When asked whether the summit outcome betrayed North Koreans being held in gulags, President Trump acknowledged that there was not much he could do right now but added his belief that “ultimately they are going to be one of the great winners as a group.” He might have added that the summit was never intended to address North Korea’s human rights record, horrible as it is, but rather to begin the process of removing an imminent, existential nuclear threat to the United States and the entire world.
While ignoring the Trump-haters who have been busy engaging in their usual carping, it is perfectly reasonable to question whether anything of real value was accomplished during the summit. We have been down the road before of lofty promises and expressions of turning over a new leaf in the relationship between the United States and North Korea, only to see them crash on the shoals of reality. North Korea will most certainly not agree to completely denuclearize in the way that the Trump administration intends, nor will the hermit kingdom accept intrusive verification anytime, anyplace by foreign inspectors. The most we can optimistically expect is that Kim Jong-un will agree to elimination of his intercontinental ballistic missile development and testing program, the end of nuclear weapons testing, and a phase down of his nuclear arsenal and production facilities to the minimum level that he believes will still provide him with sufficient leverage to deter a potential attack or invasion.
President Trump is betting on the fact that Kim Jong-un wants strong economic development for his country more than even a strong nuclear deterrent. The president quipped, noting North Korea’s beaches, that instead of exploding cannons into the ocean, it “could have the best hotels in the world.”
Kim Jong-un will not trade all his nuclear weapons for all the best beach hotels in the world. He will never put his country in the position of Libya, which gave up its nuclear program only to see its dictator overthrown and killed with U.S. support a few years later. North Korea’s reaction to National Security Adviser John Bolton’s invocation of the “Libyan model” to describe what the Trump administration is expecting the North Korean regime to do with all its nuclear weapons speaks volumes. The reason is that Kim Jong-un views his arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, even if diminished to some degree, as a necessary insurance for his regime’s survival and his own personal safety. Indeed, Kim Jong-un is so paranoid that he brought his own portable toilet to the summit to protect against the seizure by intelligence agents of what CBS called “a literal info dump” about the state of his health.
That being said, the Trump-Kim summit was still a worthwhile exercise in diplomacy. President Trump was faced with a fait accompli upon assuming office, a nuclear-armed North Korea that was moving aggressively to develop the means of delivering nuclear weapons via intercontinental ballistic missiles as far as the U.S. mainland. The summit has helped bring the United States and North Korea back from the brink of war and reduced tensions in the region after North Korea unilaterally suspended its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing.
By contrast, the Iranian regime could have been stopped from ever becoming a nuclear power in the first place if Barack Obama had not caved on virtually every demand made by Iran’s negotiators. Obama gave the Iranian regime everything it asked for in the way of sanctions relief and cash infusions upfront. He shied away from requiring rigorous verification mechanisms and the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear enrichment and ballistic missile facilities at the point in time when we had the most leverage to do so. Instead, Obama agreed to sunset clauses allowing the Iranian regime to ultimately develop its nuclear capabilities along a path towards the very threat level that President Trump is trying now to roll back in the case of North Korea.
The Iranian regime sees the difference between the naïve Barack Obama whom it duped and the wily negotiator Donald Trump who withdrew the United States from Obama’s disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. “We don’t know what type of person the North Korean leader is negotiating with. It is not clear that he would not cancel the agreement before returning home,” Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht was quoted as saying by IRNA. Hopefully, President Trump will remain steadfast in not seeking a deal at any cost like Obama did, and will be prepared to walk away at any time if the North Koreans start playing games.