A week from the historic summit between North Korea's Kim Jong-Un and President Donald Trump, it's time to take stock of what was accomplished. The week’s reads below give a variety of perspectives. Here is my take:
The most important accomplishment of the meeting was getting the diplomatic process started. "Jaw, jaw" is far preferable to "war, war," as Winston Churchill was reputed to say. He would be right. Summits traditionally represent the culmination of a diplomatic process, rarely the start. However, the president and his team are to be commended for starting us down this road. We are far better off with a process of engagement than shouting at each other and threatening to kill many millions of people.
That said, putting the end at the beginning didn't make the beginning the end; it's time for the real work to start. The summit's joint statement merely reaffirmed North Korea’s “unwavering commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—a commitment first made in 1992—with no timeline for implementation or modalities for verification. US intelligence believes North Korea retains between 30 and 60 nuclear bombs and a large arsenal of missiles, possibly including ones that can reach the United States, not to mention a vast chemical, biological, and cyber warfare capability. Moreover, the statement was unclear about what “denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula” actually means—complete, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear disarmament by North Korea, or a process that would end only once the nuclear-capable United States had withdrawn from the Peninsula and ended its alliance with South Korea? The answer is not clear, yet is fundamental to whatever is eventually negotiated.
Lastly, while the process was commendably initiated, it got off to a rocky start. Trump offered to suspend crucial US-South Korean exercises, claiming the “wargames” were “very expensive” and “very provocative.” This is language that can be heard in Beijing or Pyongyang, not Washington. The United States has long held that these war games are defensive in nature—not provocative—and Trump made this announcement without consulting America’s ally, South Korea, or even involving the Pentagon in the decision. The point of these exercises is to ensure readiness of South Korean, US, and other allied forces, to demonstrate the capacity to defend the South from an attack on the North, and to enhance overall deterrence. They’re good value for the money we spend, critical to the endurance of America’s alliance with South Korea, and necessary for the credibility of our military posture in Asia.
Moreover, President Trump weakened his negotiating position and raised serious questions about the durability of the American troop presence in South Korea, saying he “wanted to bring our troops back home.” That signaled to Pyongyang that this was a price he was willing to pay, and suggested a possible trade between North Korea’s nuclear capability and America’s military presence on the Peninsula—or even in East Asia. At the very least, it would be important to have an open debate and discussion about the wisdom of such an approach, given that American forces have undergirded peace and stability in the region since World War II.
A week from the summit, we can say for certain that the president and his team got a very important process rolling, but we stumbled out the gate, and the work is far from over. Hopefully, now that the cameras have been put away and the staff-level negotiations can begin, we will be able to look back on this summit as the prologue to a path of peace and prosperity, not a pageant of empty promises.
Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler / The New York Times
A frontier financier named Gabriel Schulze, who lives in Singapore, helped lay the groundwork for the US-North Korea summit by reaching out to Jared Kushner last summer on behalf of North Korea. According to Mazzetti and Landler, Schulze was, “…taking advantage of an unusual opening in an administration where matters of policy and business often seem to blur.” Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, opted to notify then-CIA director Mike Pompeo about the back-channel negotiations and requested the agency be in charge of discussions—overlooking the State Department. Over the course of the following year, Pompeo—assisted by a Korean-American CIA official—communicated with a former North Korean intelligence chief to construct plans for a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Nicholas Kristof / The New York Times
According to Kristof, at the Singapore summit, President Trump gave a lot—suspension of joint military exercises, security guarantees, international legitimacy to the Kim regime—for “astonishingly little” in return. Although Trump announced that North Korea was “willing to de-nuke,” all Kim Jong-un actually did was reaffirm the same commitment to denuclearization that his country has repeatedly made since 1992. The joint statement that came from the summit was void of any commitments from North Korea to freeze its plutonium and uranium programs, destroy its intercontinental ballistic missiles, allow inspectors to return to nuclear sites, or even a pledge to permanently halt the testing of nuclear weapons. “Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and it’s scary that Trump doesn’t seem to realize this,” Kristoff writes.
Victor Cha / The New York Times
The world witnessed a historic meeting last week, according to Cha, between two countries that have been sworn enemies for almost seven decades. Although the summit had its flaws, from Kim Jong-un not committing to verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs to President Trump giving props to a dictator who, “according to the United Nations, belongs in a docket before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity,” Cha writes that, “…the Singapore summit represents the start of a diplomatic process that takes us away from the brink of war.” “In the Case of North Korea, there are never good policy options—there are only choices between the bad and the worse,” Cha writes.
The Editorial Board / The Wall Street Journal
Last week in Singapore, President Trump called for the suspension of US-South Korean joint military exercises, saying they were “very provocative.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board offers an alternative option for removing provocations from the Korean peninsula: asking Kim Jong-un to pull North Korean forces back from the DMZ and take Seoul out of artillery range. “That would justify the exercise cancellation as a goodwill offer,” it writes, but goes on to conclude, “US deployments overseas are part of a global strategy of alliances to deter war, prevent the emergence of a dominant regional power like China, and keep threats as far as possible from the US homeland.”
Gerald F. Seib / The Wall Street Journal
The prospects of the Trump-Kim summit bringing lasting change on the Korean peninsula hinge on two factors, according to Seib. The first is that Kim is a wholly different North Korean leader, “prepared to shift his country’s strategic goal away from a quest for more powerful arms into a quest for a more powerful economy.” The second is that it is possible to play the traditional process of reaching significant international agreements backwards and still have it work out. As Seib points out: “The Trump-Kim handshake happened at the outset, and it is to be followed later by agreement on the tough details.” In sum, Seib writes, the war clouds have dissipated, but the weather ahead is hard to predict.
“It was Mr. Trump’s background as a reality TV performer…that set the tone for his summit meeting with Kim Jong-un,” The Economist writes. But it was Kim Jong-un who stole the limelight. In front of 2,500 reporters, the North Korean dictator, “…made use of his time on stage with both domestic and international audiences very much in mind.” Kim, who “ought to be at The Hague,” as the article states, came across as, “warm, jovial, and eminently reasonable…even statesmanlike.” Trump, on the other hand, “astonished many viewers by saying that the military exercises America regularly runs with South Korea were ‘very provocative’ – a term favored by China and North Korea.” With respect to denuclearization, The Economist writes that. “Mr. Kim is well-placed to string America along and play for time, offering concessions slowly, insincerely, or both.”
David M. Smick / The Wall Street Journal
“It wasn’t Trump,” Smick writes. Instead, the new global order, or Washington Consensus, began to go downhill when its newest members, including China, didn’t play by the rules. “They created obstacles, invented hardship scenarios, and developed loopholes to avoid their commitments,” Smick writes. After the 2007-08 Financial Crisis, it became clear that the original vision of a new global economic order was only a romanticized dream. That said, the US economy, “has an amazing ability to innovate and reinvent,” according to Smick, and, “a long-term plan is necessary to preserve and protect these unique strengths in today’s increasingly lawless world.”
Daniel Henninger / The Wall Street Journal
Henninger questions what President Trump’s penchant for breaking every rule in the book has produced during his time in office. According to Henninger, Trump’s most substantive legislative achievement is the 2017 tax cut, which was negotiated by members of his own party in Congress, “who should not be mistaken for Xi Jingping, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong-un.” On the international stage, Trump has been approached those men with conviviality, most recently during the US-North Korea summit, but even if there is a case for disruption in international deal-making, Henninger asks, ”When do we get the payoff for all this activity?”
Robert Kagan / The Washington Post
There’s a third option for America’s future besides defending the international order or shrinking away from it, Kagan argues: The US becomes a rogue superpower. He defines this category as, “…neither isolationist nor internationalist, neither withdrawing nor in decline, but active, powerful and entirely out for itself.” Trump’s “successes” derive from his willingness to do what his predecessors refused to do, namely, “exploit the great disparities of power built into the postwar order, at the expense of the United States’ allies and partners,” Kagan writes.
Michael Doran and Peter Rough / The Wall Street Journal
“With friends like Trump, who needs enemies?” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, quoted in this article. Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions after pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal was, “based on a sound reading of vital American and Western security interests,” Doran and Rough write, “[b]ut something basic has been absent from this approach…old-fashioned diplomacy based on a sustained campaign of persuasion.” Coercion works, but the US hasn’t done enough to convince Europe of the deal’s flaws. Doran and Rough argue, a successful campaign of persuasion by the Trump administration could “…show Europeans that despite the disagreement about Iran, the US still respects them.”