Donald Trump got little of substance out of his summit with Kim Jong Un. But that didn’t stop him from making a triumphant, demonstrably false claim about how things went. Trump declared in an early-morning tweet that North Korea’s threat to America has been somehow neutralized altogether: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
In reality, Trump returned to America from the Singapore meeting having secured only a vague promise, not unlike others the North Koreans have broken in the past, about working toward the goal of denuclearization. Yet North Korea has just as many nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and nuclear facilities and personnel, and precisely as much fissile material, as before Trump and Kim shook hands and signed a document in which North Korea vowed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Not only that, but the North Koreans have come away from the summit with a much more immediate pledge from the president to suspend U.S.-South Korea military exercises that the North has long viewed as a threat. The North Koreans may view their denuclearization commitment as a pie-in-the-sky pledge to give up their nuclear weapons once the nuclear-armed United States withdraws its protection for South Korea and ceases all hostile behavior toward North Korea. The statement they endorsed includes no details on how denuclearization will be implemented, how long it will take, or even what first moves the North will make toward that objective.
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.
It’s one thing for Trump to declare the summit a victory despite its modest results. But it’s quite another thing to pretend to have solved a threat decades in the making with a few handshakes and a 403-word statement. One has to imagine that, in Pyongyang right now, Kim Jong Un and his advisers are pulling up Trump’s Twitter feed. Fresh off a meeting in which they committed to nothing concrete and the president of the United States implicitly acknowledged North Korea as a nuclear-weapons power by noting their “very powerful nuclear weapons” at a press conference, they might be marveling at Trump’s boasts and asking themselves, “Is that all it took?”