His advisers will deny it, but when Donald Trump stepped into North Korea on Sunday, he effectively stepped away from his administration’s stated goal of fully eliminating Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons.
There were many remarkable aspects of the U.S. president’s surprise meeting with the North Korean leader at the border, but perhaps the most notable was the absence of the issue that brought Trump and Kim together in the first place one year ago: Pyongyang’s development of a nuclear-weapons arsenal that directly threatens the United States and its allies, and which Trump’s advisers once vowed to remove by 2021.
From the moment Trump greeted Kim with an extended hand (“My friend! … It’s my honor.”), to their first comments to reporters, to their remarks to the media while meeting one-on-one, the president never publicly mentioned North Korea’s nuclear program, and Kim didn’t bring it up either. Trump raised the subject twice during an earlier news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but in both cases it was to briefly note that Kim hasn’t tested nuclear weapons while engaged in talks with the United States. (It fell to Moon to note that he and Trump still agreed on the ultimate objective of denuclearization.)
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.”
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.
Yesterday, National Security Adviser John Bolton denied a New York Times report that the Trump administration is now aiming to verifiably freeze North Korea’s production of nuclear-weapons material, and thus prevent Kim’s arsenal from becoming more dangerous than it already is. (Bolton specifically said the National Security Council is not working on such a plan, leaving open the possibility that the effort could be under way elsewhere in the government.)
Still, as the North Korea scholar Van Jackson has noted, that’s exactly the sort of outcome you would strive for if you’re tacitly recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power—along with additional steps such as getting Kim to cap or even roll back aspects of his nuclear program, or pledge to not build new kinds of weapons.
When we met in Seoul last spring, Cheon Seong-whun, a former South Korean national-security official, told me this day would come. He advised against thinking of the dramatic diplomacy of the past year as laying the foundation for North Korea’s eventual denuclearization. Instead, he argued, we are witnessing last-ditch efforts—desperate experiments with anything and everything imaginable—to stave off the emergence of North Korea as a fully fledged nuclear-weapons state. The present period reminded him of the late 1940s, when the U.S. government formulated its policy to contain and deter Russia once it acquired the bomb.
U.S. officials came around to the idea that they had “no choice but to accept the Soviet Union as a new nuclear-weapons power and manage their relationship,” he said. When it dawns on either Trump or the next American president that neither engagement nor pressure will persuade Kim to relinquish his nukes, Cheon predicted, the U.S. government will reach a similar conclusion.
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