Talking about peace is always better than threatening war. By that standard, President Trump’s historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un – the first time a sitting US president has met with a North Korean leader – can be called a success. But the lack of substance, other than a joint statement announcing a goal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula at some point in the future, is a reminder that the photo optics are easy. Genuine, verifiable progress, on the other hand, is hard and on that front it’s not yet obvious that anything has changed with respect to North Korea.
Practitioners of realpolitik are quick to point out that North Korea is still a brutal dictatorship and the country’s record on previous engagements with South Korea and the US have delivered little beyond fleeting rounds of bonhomie.
“It is unclear if further negotiations will lead to the end goal of denuclearization,” says Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. “This looks like a restatement of where we left negotiations more than 10 years ago and not a major step forward.”
But hope springs eternal and in the interests of advancing peace that can be a good thing. But even assuming that Kim Jong-Un is truly committed to denuclearization – an assumption that requires a large leap of faith at this stage – the process of making that happen on the ground will be a slow, technical affair that unfolds over years. As The New York Times points out, removing North Korea’s nukes “would be the most challenging case of nuclear disarmament in history.”
To the extent that a fresh approach will be productive it’s reasonable to wonder if President Trump can find pay dirt where others have failed. His gambit on meeting with Kim has certainly paid off as a media event that’s raised expectations and promoted the president as global peacemaker in chief.
“People thought this could never take place,” the president told reporters. “It’s a very great day, it’s a very great moment in the history of the world.”
The challenge will be translating the sky-high expectations set by Trump into verifiable progress.
Some analysts, perhaps many, have been skeptical from the get-go, largely because Trump has been orchestrating the show. Van Jackson, the defense and strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand, advises in Foreign Policy today that “the institutionalized authority of the presidency endows Trump with a more important voice in defining the national interest abroad than anyone else.”
That discretion only makes sense as long as you’re willing to assume that the president is a reasonable judge of the national interest and that he will act faithfully on its behalf. But Trump’s motivations to hold this summit have nothing to do with securing peace or even making the world safe for Americans. It’s about fueling his ego and sustaining a mythos about his deal-making prowess that’s not just unsubstantiated — it’s beginning to border on a cult of personality.
Such criticism will fade quickly, of course, if and when North Korea begins to show concrete efforts to wind down its nuclear arsenal.
The worry is that Kim’s running an elaborate charm offensive with a goal of sanitizing his image for an international audience so as to reduce if not end the stringent trade sanctions on his country. The potential for a massive influx of foreign investment, albeit investment that will likely be tightly controlled by Kim and his government, is also an incentive to smile for the cameras.
The question is whether the past isn’t prologue this time and Trump and Kim have truly laid the foundation for peace? Perhaps, but the events of the last 24 hours alone aren’t necessarily a sign of what’s to come.
Some analysts worry that Trump has already given away too much, starting with conferring legitimacy and influence on Kim, whose stature has been substantially enhanced by meeting with a sitting US president.
Trump also announced that US-South Korea war games are now “inappropriate”, a policy shift that gives Kim’s regime a long-sought-after prize. “Under the circumstances that we’re negotiating a very comprehensive complete deal I think it’s inappropriate to have war games … It is something that [North Korea] very much appreciated,” the president explained at press conference following his meeting with Kim.
A downpayment on a lasting peace? Maybe, although some fear that at this point it’s a naïve decision that’s playing into North Korea’s agenda.
“I don’t quite understand why Trump felt the need to stop the war games,” said a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “They are something that shows US resolve in the region, not only to North Korea but also more importantly to China. And it seems like there’s this whole idea of Trump as this great negotiator and yet he gave up one of the most important cards we have in the region, seemingly for free. So I think I am baffled by that and I am baffled by a lot of things that came out of Trump’s mouth.”