Letter: Trump’s North Korea Statements Are an ‘Acknowledgement of Reality’

A reader weighs in on last week’s summit in Singapore.

A journalist in Singapore reads an article in a local newspaper on the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Tyrone Siu / Reuters)

Trump Got Nearly Nothing From Kim Jong Un

The leaders’ meeting last week may have been the beginning of something big, Uri Friedman argued. But it started off small.

I found your article very well written, but I can’t agree with some of the conclusions and the basic premise of the article.

You wrote:

But Trump then proceeded to, rhetorically at least, make one concession after another to North Korea. He said that U.S. sanctions on North Korea would “come off when we are sure that the nukes are no longer a factor,” but then chipped away at that firm stance by adding that “I actually look forward to taking them off” …

This does not necessarily mean that our president is backing away from his firm stance. It could just as easily mean he genuinely wants a good relationship with North Korea. This could be compared to a parent that is excited about their child being taken off of restriction because of bad behavior. The parent will not allow the child to get away with bad behavior, but that doesn’t mean they enjoy punishing their child. Certainly our individual biases play a role in which explanation we are inclined to believe, but would you agree that this alternate explanation is a feasible possibility?

In announcing that the United States and South Korea would suspend their joint military exercises as long as negotiations progress, [Trump] adopted North Korea’s longstanding position that these “war games” are “very provocative” rather than legitimate defensive measures. “I know a lot about airplanes. It’s very expensive,” he said of the drills, which can involve bombers based in Guam. Trump also hinted that he might eventually fulfill the North’s longtime objective of booting U.S. forces from Korea. “At some point,” he noted, “I want to bring our soldiers back home.”

Mr. Trump is correct about the cost. As a former military officer, I can attest to how expensive training truly is. But to the bigger point of whether the military training exercises are either provocative or a legitimate defensive measure: They are both at the same time. Think “the best defense is a good offense.” As a show of force, the exercises both send a message to North Korea that we are serious about the possibility of using military action if necessary and simultaneously ensure our soldiers, marines, and airmen are ready to fight if the need arises. President Trump’s indicating that we will stop those is not a concession simply because he is adopting North Korea’s position. It is merely an acknowledgement of reality. I would consider it a gesture of goodwill; at any point President Trump can start the exercises again with a simple phone call. We aren’t losing anything with that negotiation.

Trump didn’t cite much concrete evidence for why he feels these nuclear negotiations with North Korea will produce a different outcome than the last 25 years of inconclusive talks—that the North is really prepared this time to relinquish the nuclear arsenal that it has spent decades building as a security blanket, at tremendous cost. … There were, however, fleeting moments of self-doubt. “Can you ensure anything? Can I ensure that you’re going to be able to sit down properly when you sit down?” Trump asked one reporter who had stood up to ask him a question about Kim’s commitment to denuclearization. “I think he’ll do it—I really believe that. … I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

I believe your assessment of “self-doubt” is completely incorrect. This is, again, an acknowledgement of reality. There is no proof that North Korea is not putting on a show and has no real intentions of cooperating. Further acknowledgement of this possibility is that part of Mr. Trump’s negotiations include concessions/gestures of goodwill that are 100 percent contingent upon North Korea’s continued cooperation. Having said that, I believe the best indicator that Kim Jung Un is serious about these negotiations is what his state media published. I can’t find the exact article to quote, but the message is that President Trump and Kim Jung Un are meeting as equals to work towards an agreement because of the changing times we are entering. The spin indicating Kim Jung Un is an equal is expected and unavoidable. But I don’t believe his propaganda machine would make a statement like that and then have to backtrack later and say, “Just kidding. We couldn’t reach a deal.” I just can’t believe they want to risk his not looking like the equal world leader the North Korean media is portraying him to be.

Finally, on the basic premise of the article, it is unreasonable to expect anything more than what Mr. Trump got, so I find it unfair to claim he got very little in return. President Trump (and the world) really want only one thing: the complete denuclearization of North Korea. That will likely take years (as you discussed in your article), so President Trump was essentially guaranteed to walk away with nothing of concrete value other than promises and a signature from Kim Jung Un. Expecting anything more wouldn’t make sense because there was nothing else to want. Likewise, because President Trump did get a verbal promise and a signature, he got everything he wanted and therefore must consider this summit a complete success. Of course, none of this guarantees overall success. Only time will tell if Kim Jung Un will cooperate, and President Trump has structured his negotiations in a way that accounts for this possibility.

Nathan King
Madison, Ala.

Uri Friedman replies:

Mr. King makes excellent points. My assessment that President Trump got nearly nothing out of his summit with Kim Jong Un was based on the substance of what the two leaders agreed to in Singapore and relative to the goals that the Trump administration itself has staked out. But I agree that the meeting yielded a number of significant achievements nonetheless, including embracing a novel top-down approach to negotiations that hasn’t been tried over the past 25 years of nuclear talks; taking the first steps toward transforming the political relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, and taking the U.S. and North Korea off their glide path toward military confrontation.

Mr. King’s alternative explanation for Trump’s comments on sanctions—that the president hopes the conditions will arise to be able to take them off—is certainly plausible, though I think his comments that it was “OK” for China to be easing up on sanctions at the border are more difficult to interpret as anything other than a nod to not going as hard on sanctions as long as talks with the North continue to progress.

It’s true that the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises could be a useful and reversible concession, and that these drills can be both defensive and provocative at the same time. It’s worth noting, though, that Trump made no defense of the legitimacy of those exercises in his remarks. His comments were mostly critical of the exercises.

My reference to Trump’s self-doubt wasn’t about the president’s doubts not being grounded in reality. I was referring to the fact that the president has expressed great confidence in his ability to discern whether his negotiating partners are acting in good faith, but then admitted during the press conference that he might be wrong. And I agree that it’s valuable to watch what the North Korean media is saying about the summit. On Thursday, North Korean state media released a long documentary on the summit in which they showed the joint statement that Kim and Trump signed, which means North Korean viewers saw Kim’s commitment to denuclearization. That’s a big deal.

Yes, the summit was just the beginning of a process, so the results by definition were going to be modest. But I do think among the realistic potential outcomes of a summit like this could have been a more detailed agreement by the two leaders—though certainly not any kind of comprehensive solution to a nuclear crisis that has been building for decades.