Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top U.S. officials are now poised to engage in a series of talks with their North Korean counterparts to determine how serious Kim is about denuclearizing and what the United States and its allies will need to offer in return. The Trump administration did indeed succeed, both before and during the summit, in securing several goodwill gestures from North Korea: a suspension of nuclear and missile tests, the closure (if not the verifiable destruction) of a nuclear-test site, and, according to Trump, a promise by Kim in Singapore to shutter a missile-engine testing site. All of these things, plus the mere fact that U.S. and North Korean leaders are now talking to each other instead of threatening to blow each other up like they were last summer and fall, diminish the nuclear threat to the United States from North Korea for the moment.
None of them, however, changes the reality that North Korea remains very much on the cusp of being capable of striking the U.S. with long-range nuclear missiles, if it has not already reached this milestone. And it has taken no steps to reverse this basic fact.
Does Trump not know this? Or is he intent on claiming a foreign-policy victory if it benefits him politically, whether or not his negotiations with North Korea ultimately make Americans safer? “Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, even though fears of war mounted after Trump took office, as North Korea’s nuclear program advanced rapidly and Trump and his advisers threatened military action to stop it. “President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer—sleep well tonight!”
Quite the contrary, North Korea remains a big and dangerous problem. And it’s also dangerous that Trump, in his recent tweets at least, doesn’t seem fully aware of the pitfalls that American officials have repeatedly encountered over the last 25 years of nuclear talks with North Korea. Hours before Trump’s summit with Kim, the Republican Senator Jim Risch, who has discussed North Korea with the president and his top aides numerous times in recent weeks, told me that “nobody” in the Trump administration was wearing “rose-colored glasses.” “We have been taken by the North Koreans at least a couple of times [in previous rounds of negotiations], and that’s not going to happen again,” he said. “We’re [not] at a point right now where they say, ‘Okay, we’re going to denuclearize the peninsula,’ and then the president says, ‘Well, okay, we’re going to lift the sanctions.’ That is not going to happen. The president has been very, very clear that there is going to have to be positive, doable, ongoing things that are happening before anything happens from our side.” And yet, in Singapore, North Korea said exactly what Risch predicted: Sure, we’d love to eventually denuclearize the peninsula. And Donald Trump responded by proclaiming an end to the nuclear threat from North Korea.