Donald Trump didn’t get much in the way of North Korean denuclearization in Singapore. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In the days since the summit with Kim Jong Un, critics—including me—have pointed out how little the U.S. president got from North Korea’s leader during their much-hyped meeting. And it’s true that Trump fell far short in that meeting of his stated goal to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and then wildly overstated his achievement by declaring the North Korean nuclear threat over. (It’s not.) But the Trump administration racked up real accomplishments in Singapore that are perhaps best understood by setting aside the president’s grand (and at times groundless) pronouncements. The summit’s modest and provisional results are actually of considerable consequence.
Here’s a rundown of why Trump can reasonably make the case that the Singapore summit was successful and that the United States and the world are safer now than they were before he decided to become the first American president to meet with North Korea’s leader.
1) U.S. concessions to North Korea so far are largely reversible.
If North Korea hasn’t yet given up a lot in negotiations, neither has the United States. Trump can’t retract his decision to hold a summit with and even speak admiringly of the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong Un, just like Kim can’t walk back his decision to release American hostages ahead of the summit. But Trump is right to state that while he has suspended upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises that he considers “provocative,” he can always reinstate the drills if nuclear talks collapse. Likewise, the Trump administration has refrained from imposing new sanctions on North Korea as diplomacy proceeds and, in engaging North Korea, has potentially weakened the resolve of countries such as China and South Korea to enforce existing sanctions. But here again, there’s been no easing of U.S. sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s vague, noncommittal promise of denuclearization in Singapore.
This, of course, isn’t all that surprising: Goodwill gestures at the outset of negotiations, when there’s little trust among the parties, tend to be provisional. Experts suspect, for instance, that the North Koreans may still be able to reopen the nuclear-test site that they claimed to have destroyed with great fanfare in the lead-up to the summit.
2) The United States and North Korea are now talking to each other rather than threatening war.
It was just six months ago that Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator and Trump confidant, was telling me there was a 70-percent chance of the president launching an all-out war against the Kim regime if North Korea tested another nuclear device. A month later, Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic senator and military veteran, returned from South Korea and told me that U.S. forces appeared to be operating with the attitude that a conflict “will probably happen, and we better be ready to go.” A Russian academic came back from Pyongyang with a chilling report: The North Korean government “is not bluffing when it says that ‘only one question remains: When will war break out?’” With each test of a bomb or long-range missile, the North moved closer to the capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons—a development the Trump administration had vowed to prevent at all costs.
Whether or not hostilities were truly imminent, the military brinkmanship was real. And in this climate, people weren’t exactly holding their breath for a swift, negotiated end to the North Korean nuclear program. Around the time that Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” in August, the nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who has visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities several times, argued that the most immediate task for U.S. policymakers was not to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons but to avoid stumbling into nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. He urged Trump to send military and diplomatic officials to Pyongyang to simply talk with and learn more about their North Korean counterparts, and thereby reduce tensions and the risk of dangerous miscalculation. Graham, one of the leading North Korea hawks in Congress, surprisingly went further. When we spoke he wouldn’t rule out a Kim-Trump summit, then a fanciful idea. “I’m not taking anything off the table to avoid a war,” he said.
If these recommendations seemed prudent and urgent at the time, it’s hard to argue only half a year later that the Singapore summit and the flurry of direct, lower-level talks preceding it are meaningless or even reckless. Within months of Duckworth warning darkly that the U.S. military had “seen the writing on the wall,” Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un were signing a statement in which they pledged to jointly “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.” That’s astonishing.
3) Any North Korean denuclearization pledge is remarkable.
Critics of Trump’s North Korea summit have pointed out that Kim’s commitment to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” by some unspecified time—squishy wording that might entail the nuclear-armed United States ending its military alliance with South Korea and concluding a peace treaty with North Korea—is actually weaker than the North’s vow in a 2005 statement to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” at “an early date” and pursue the goal of “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
But this is comparing apples to oranges—or several bombs’ worth of plutonium to a bristling nuclear-weapons arsenal, as it were. While North Korea had declared itself a nuclear power in 2005, it hadn’t yet tested a nuclear bomb. Thirteen years later it has tested six, including most recently a suspected thermonuclear weapon 17 times as strong as the bomb that devastated Hiroshima—plus last year’s successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that may be able to carry nuclear warheads to the United States. The deficiencies in the language notwithstanding, it’s remarkable that a now nearly full-fledged nuclear power would agree in writing to anything involving the ceding of that status. (Granted, the parties to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which include the United States and other nuclear states, sign on to similarly aspirational disarmament goals.) Also notable: North Korean state media has released a documentary on the Singapore summit that shows viewers the agreed-to language on denuclearization.
The 2005 statement, moreover, came after years of negotiations, not mere months as in the case of the 2018 statement. And the 2005 denuclearization pledge was accompanied by written assurances from the Bush administration to not attack North Korea and to offer it energy and economic assistance. The 2018 denuclearization pledge was made without any such written assurances from the Trump administration, though the president and other U.S. officials verbally echoed these promises before the summit.
4) For the moment, some conditions for a realistic, halfway-decent nuclear deal with North Korea are in place.
In March, just hours before Trump announced his intention to meet with Kim Jong Un, former U.S. Defense Secretary Bill Perry gave me a bleak assessment of what nuclear talks with North Korea could realistically achieve.
In the 1990s, Perry had spearheaded an effort by the Clinton administration to reach a comprehensive agreement for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and its work on long-range missiles in return for a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, the gradual normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations, and other concessions. Had the 2000 U.S. presidential election not gotten in the way, the deal may well have succeeded. But Perry argued that what might have bought North Korean denuclearization a couple decades ago had much less purchase today. He suggested offering these same incentives to North Korea if it instituted a ban on nuclear and missile tests, which would be much easier to verify than a more sweeping agreement on the country’s sprawling nuclear infrastructure. (We might not know if North Korea is disclosing all its nuclear weapons and facilities, but we do know when it explodes bombs underground or fires rockets into the Sea of Japan.)
“In 1999 we had a chance of getting denuclearization. I do not believe we will get that today,” Perry told me. A moratorium on tests, while far from a grand bargain, “would be worth having,” he argued, because it would keep Kim from refining the long-range nuclear capability that directly threatens the United States. The Trump administration, he added, could also try to get North Korea to limit the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, not build new and improved ones, and not transfer nuclear weapons and technology to other states or non-state actors, though all of these moves would be more difficult to verify. Perry’s proposal essentially aimed to keep a nuclear program that is already a fait accompli from growing more dangerous.
Diplomacy with North Korea hasn’t yet produced even this limited nuclear deal. But as talks proceed it has resulted in a de facto freeze of the North’s tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, which Kim announced in April. That means that for the time being, North Korea isn’t experimenting (publicly at least) with its new intercontinental ballistic missiles, detonating nuclear devices, or test-firing nuclear-tipped missiles over the Pacific Ocean as it threatened to do last fall—all of which would signal advances in the North Korean nuclear program and bring the United States and North Korean closer to military conflict.
Tentatively suspending U.S.-South Korea military exercises while North Korea tentatively suspends its nuclear and missile tests is very far off from the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program that the Trump administration has demanded. But it’s closer to what Perry has described as a workable outcome of negotiations.
5) Trump is experimenting with a promising politics-first approach to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
In jumpstarting talks with a head-of-state summit, Trump didn’t only reverse the bottom-up process that has shaped inconclusive nuclear negotiations with North Korea over the last 25 years. He also appeared to be prioritizing the transformation of relations between the United States and North Korea over the technical details of constraining the North’s nuclear capabilities. “President Trump places great faith in his own ability to relate to others on a personal basis, and so it does seem like he wants to bolster the political relationship [with Kim] and then trust that will lead to arms control,” James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College told me. “Politics leads, international law lags. We appear to be about to put this idea to the test.”
And while we don’t yet know the results of the test, this novel approach could potentially succeed in reducing the North Korean nuclear threat, if not eliminating it altogether. If the classic definition of a security threat is the combination of intent and capability to cause harm, U.S officials have tended to fixate on blunting North Korea’s capabilities rather than addressing intent. But intent matters too. As the German political scientist Alexander Wendt once noted, “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons, because the British are friends of the United States and the North Koreans are not.”
If there’s any chance of North Korea doing what only one country in history has done before—relinquishing nuclear weapons that it built and controls—it would probably be as a result of a massive shift in Kim Jong Un’s perception of security threats and personal and political calculations. (North Korea claims that the purpose of its nuclear program is to deter U.S. aggression.) F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president who made that unprecedented decision to give up his nation’s atomic bombs, told me that he did so in the early 1990s because he was personally opposed to nuclear weapons; because the Soviet Union, whose aggression South Africa was trying to deter, was disintegrating; and because South Africa was trying to end its international isolation as part of its political transition away from apartheid. (While some speculate that the country’s white leaders didn’t want the incoming black government to possess nuclear weapons, de Klerk denied that this informed his actions.)
George Perkovich, a nuclear-weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has identified a similar dynamic at play in U.S.-Russian nuclear-arms reduction agreements over the years. “When the political relationships changed and the types of war you were worried about being conducted changed … you could reduce nuclear weapons,” he told me last fall.
6) It’s possible this is the small start of something big.
Reflecting on the significance of the Singapore summit in an interview with the BBC, the former South Korean military officer I-B Chun quoted a Korean saying: “A long journey starts with the first step. And when that first step is taken, the journey is half-finished.” The journey to North Korea’s denuclearization may be a long way from half-finished, and may never finish or may even end abruptly at any moment, but Trump’s meeting with Kim is certainly a first step in the right direction. And we simply don’t know at this point where the next steps, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his North Korean counterparts will now take, will lead.
“As risky and high-stakes as this entire process is, it makes sense because that’s the way the North operates. Their regime is top-down,” the Korea expert Duyeon Kim noted when we met in Seoul ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. She advised Trump and Kim to settle in Singapore “upon a very simple vision statement on end goals … and then have senior negotiators figure out the details, figure out timetables, figure out implementation.”
That, in fact, is exactly what the two leaders did.