And if he doesn’t? America can always begin the exercises again. It’s hard to grasp why Schumer thinks Trump’s concessions are “tangible and lasting” but Kim’s aren’t. It’s as easy for America to restart its military exercises as it is for North Korea to restart its missile tests.
The more sophisticated critique of Trump’s concessions is that by embracing Kim he undermined the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign that led Kim to shift his behavior. Already, for example, China has restarted flights to North Korea, which it suspended last November.
But this more sophisticated critique is probably wrong, too. It’s not at all clear that Kim launched his charm offensive in response to sanctions. After all, his father and grandfather said they wanted to end hostilities with America too. It’s more likely that what dictated Kim’s timing was his own military schedule. By conducting missile tests last year, he created facts on the ground and enhanced his bargaining power. Those actions gave substance to Kim’s claim, in his New Year’s address, that North Korea is now a nuclear power. Having achieved that, he was ready to reach out.
The critics who say Trump should have played hard to get in the face of Kim’s outreach, and thus sustained “maximum pressure,” aren’t reckoning with how South Korea and China would have reacted to such behavior. Remember: Kim’s charm offensive—at the Olympics in February and then at the Panmunjom summit in April—was directed first at Seoul, where it was rapturously reciprocated. Had Trump kept talking about fire and fury while Kim and Moon were embracing, he would have risked a major split with Seoul. “Maximum pressure” was possible in 2017 because Kim was testing missiles, which angered even China. Once he shifted course, it would have been difficult to maintain no matter what Trump did.
The second major Democratic criticism is that Trump apparently didn’t pressure Kim on North Korea’s horrific human-rights record. To the contrary, Trump said, “His country does love him,” which Democratic Senator Brian Schatz called “embarrassing” and an “abdication of American leadership.” When Trump said Kim “loves his country very much,” Representative Steve Cohen tweeted, “Loves it so much that he has them impoverished and enslaved except for those he murders.”
Fair enough. Trump’s comments were absurd and repugnant. He should have raised human rights in Singapore. David Hawk, a former executive director of Amnesty International USA, who has written several reports on North Korea’s labor camps, told me Trump, as a first step, could have asked Kim to allow representatives of the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect those camps. He could also have asked Kim to stop imprisoning North Korean women who are forcibly repatriated from China and to allow families separated between North and South Korea to correspond and talk on the phone.