Donald Trump didn’t get much in the way of North Korean denuclearization in Singapore. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In the days since the summit with Kim Jong Un, critics—including me—have pointed out how little the U.S. president got from North Korea’s leader during their much-hyped meeting. And it’s true that Trump fell far short in that meeting of his stated goal to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, and then wildly overstated his achievement by declaring the North Korean nuclear threat over. (It’s not.) But the Trump administration racked up real accomplishments in Singapore that are perhaps best understood by setting aside the president’s grand (and at times groundless) pronouncements. The summit’s modest and provisional results are actually of considerable consequence.
Here’s a rundown of why Trump can reasonably make the case that the Singapore summit was successful and that the United States and the world are safer now than they were before he decided to become the first American president to meet with North Korea’s leader.
1) U.S. concessions to North Korea so far are largely reversible.
If North Korea hasn’t yet given up a lot in negotiations, neither has the United States. Trump can’t retract his decision to hold a summit with and even speak admiringly of the dictatorial rule of Kim Jong Un, just like Kim can’t walk back his decision to release American hostages ahead of the summit. But Trump is right to state that while he has suspended upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises that he considers “provocative,” he can always reinstate the drills if nuclear talks collapse. Likewise, the Trump administration has refrained from imposing new sanctions on North Korea as diplomacy proceeds and, in engaging North Korea, has potentially weakened the resolve of countries such as China and South Korea to enforce existing sanctions. But here again, there’s been no easing of U.S. sanctions in exchange for North Korea’s vague, noncommittal promise of denuclearization in Singapore.