The Singapore summit was, without question, a triumph for Kim Jong Un and his North Korean regime. A dictator who has ordered the murder of his own family members, and who oversees a gulag comparable to those of Hitler and Stalin, was able to parade on the global stage as a legitimate statesman, praised by the president of the United States as “very talented” and worthy of trust. President Trump offered Kim a major concession, the suspension of U.S. military exercises with South Korea, and spoke of his wish to withdraw U.S. troops from the country. Kim, meanwhile, did not commit to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization the United States has demanded — nor to any other change in his regime’s criminal behavior.
The two leaders agreed to begin a diplomatic process to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That is certainly preferable to the slide toward war that appeared to be under way last year. But Trump has placed a large bet on a cruel and unpredictable ruler whose motives and aims are far from clear — and who has shown no sign of altering North Korea’s commitment to nuclear weapons or its deceptive negotiating tactics.
The most substantive result of the summit was Trump’s announcement of a freeze on U.S.-South Korean military exercises — a concession that apparently took the South Korean government and the U.S. military by surprise. With backing from China and Russia, which seek to diminish U.S. strategic standing in Asia, North Korea has long sought an end to the exercises — and until Tuesday, this and previous U.S. administrations had flatly rejected the idea. Now, Trump has adopted it — and, remarkably, used Pyongyang’s language in describing the “war games” as “provocative.”
Trump portrayed his concession as an exchange for North Korea’s destruction of a test site for missile engines. But that demolition took place before the summit — and is in no way comparable to the freezing of exercises, which could signal that the U.S.-South Korean security relationship is up for negotiation alongside North Korea’s arsenal. Trump’s further contention that stopping the maneuvers “will save us a tremendous amount of money” will deliver another shock to Asian and European countries that depend on the United States for defense.
Compared with that gift, North Korea’s commitments at the summit look meager indeed. A joint statement said Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” That language is actually weaker and less specific than what Pyongyang offered in several previous agreements — which it then flouted. North Korea’s definition of denuclearization envisions a far-reaching U.S. strategic retreat, including the removal of the American defense umbrella from both South Korea and Japan. There was no mention in the statement of U.S. terms for disarmament: not a word about verification, or irreversibility, or timelines.
The diplomatic process that will now begin ought to be aimed at delivering tangible North Korean commitments and actions. The United States should be seeking a full declaration of the regime’s arsenal and nuclear facilities; without it, showy demolitions of test sites are meaningless. And Trump should refrain from offering Kim any further unilateral concessions.
This editorial was first published in The Washington Post.