Read: The normalization of meeting Kim Jong Un
As Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists pointed out, Trump repeatedly described the personal connection he has established with North Korea’s dictator not as a means to denuclearization, but as an end in itself. “The relationship that we’ve developed has meant so much to so many people,” Trump says in a highlight reel from his trip to the demilitarized zone that contains no reference to Kim’s nuclear program.
The president’s allies have amplified the message. “This president is taking action—and we’re closer to peace than ever before!” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, wrote on Twitter, posting footage of Trump setting foot in North Korean territory. If North Korea’s denuclearization is any closer, she didn’t say. (North Korea hasn’t taken any steps toward reducing its nuclear-weapons stockpile.)
Theatrics aside, the third Trump-Kim meeting was the product of deflated ambition. Trump and Kim initially agreed on something general, then disagreed on the specifics, and now were essentially agreeing to disagree. While the first summit, in Singapore, yielded a vague North Korean commitment in writing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and the second summit, in Vietnam, ended with no agreement when U.S. demands for denuclearization and North Korean demands for sanctions relief couldn’t be reconciled, the third appears to have featured little substantive discussion altogether.
After Vietnam, some Trump-administration officials had suggested that another meeting with Kim was contingent on North Korea showing it was prepared to make real progress on denuclearization. It didn’t, as far as we know, and yet the president went ahead with a meeting anyway.
The most significant result from the DMZ rendezvous was Trump and Kim blessing negotiations between lower-level officials, which more or less returns the process to where it was six months ago, before the Vietnam summit.
“‘The United States has accepted North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.’ This is the headline,” the nuclear expert David Santoro noted in reference to the image of Trump and Kim standing beside each other at the inter-Korean border. “Look at the picture—really look at it—and tell me I’m wrong.”
Read: Trump sides with North Korea against the CIA
Santoro’s point wasn’t that the United States is all of a sudden cool with North Korea possessing nuclear weapons, but rather that it is acknowledging the reality that Kim is highly unlikely to surrender them—and therefore settling for ways to reduce the threat they pose.
The Trump administration probably won’t ever publicly retreat from its policy of “final, fully verifiable denuclearization,” and so far it hasn’t shown much flexibility in easing sanctions until North Korea signs up for that. But in emphasizing that sanctions remain in place as he pursues a “comprehensive” deal and that he’s in no rush, the president seems to be betting on, at worst, a drawn-out process in which Kim refrains from additional nuclear and missile tests, and at best, the North Korean leader making major nuclear concessions as sanctions take their toll.