By Evan Osnos
What Kim Jong Un really wants in negotiations with the United States may not be what Donald Trump has in mind.
Photograph by Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty
“Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things,” President Trump told reporters in Singapore on Tuesday night, after signing a page of loose declarations with Kim Jong Un. “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.” Perhaps no truer words were spoken at the Singapore summit, where Donald Trump, with a handshake and a shrug, opened a new phase in Asia that will eventually reveal him to be either a visionary who saw a path to peace where others did not or a dupe who squandered American credibility. He announced the opening of contact with North Korea with the bonhomie of a developer at a groundbreaking: he hailed an “excellent relationship” with a “talented” counterpart, and shooed away questions about timetables and the risk of default. He made no mention of Kim’s accelerated testing of missiles and nuclear weapons, or of his own threats, via Twitter last year, to “totally destroy” North Korea. He handed off the substantive work to his Cabinet, a team that is already sharply divided between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has expressed high hopes for peace, and the national-security adviser, John Bolton, who has argued for years that North Korea cannot be trusted.
Compared with the expectations for the summit—or with previous agreements—there was much that Trump failed to get. There was no exchange of liaison offices and no pledge to improve human rights. “I do not see what can really possibly hold in this remarkably imprecise and nonbinding document,” Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University, in Seoul, said. “It is truly remarkable how Donald Trump, being in such a strong negotiating position, has managed to get so little from the North Koreans.” For Trump, the goal, apparently, was the handshake itself. In his view, cheerful patter is easy and inexpensive, and he can renounce the positive vibes on a whim, as needed. In the annals of diplomacy, though, the risks of casual declarations abound. Most apropos in this case is George W. Bush’s first official trip to Europe as President, when he was asked if he trusted Vladimir Putin, and famously replied, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.” (Condoleezza Rice later lamented that response, writing, “We were never able to escape the perception that the President had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.”)
Trump appears to have decided that the chance of a breakthrough is worth the risk of looking naïve. “I do trust him, yeah,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in answer to the inevitable question about Kim. “He really wants to do a great job for North Korea. He’s de-nuking the whole place, and I think he’s going to start very quickly. He really wants to do something, I think, terrific for their country.”
What Kim really wants, however, may not be what Trump has in mind. “North Korean media wrote at remarkable length about Kim Jong Un’s trip to Singapore,” Lankov told me. State cameramen made a point of filming attentive, prosperous Singaporeans, a montage that will be used to fortify Kim’s image and to promote the prospect of economic reforms. The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s major official newspaper, dedicated a large part of its front page to celebrating Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism. “The island state was praised on a scale one seldom sees in the North Korean newspapers,” Lankov added. But, in its early reports, North Korean media made conspicuously little mention of the substance of the summit, and Pyongyang gave no sign that the state is preparing its public to stop celebrating nuclear weapons as a singular achievement.
In fact, as expected, North Korea made no specific commitments about dismantling its nuclear program. In the joint statement, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—a reference to previous agreements, going back to 1992, which have not held. By far, the largest concession in the talks came from Trump, who announced his willingness to freeze joint military exercises with South Korean forces. For months, Trump’s aides described a freeze as a non-starter, but, on Tuesday, he adopted North Korea’s view that the exercises are, as he put it, “very provocative” and said that the suspension would “save us a tremendous amount of money.”
That is no minor concession. The next round of war games with South Korea was scheduled to take place in August. After the announcement, Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Center for a New American Security, told me that joint exercises are designed to deter North Korea from attacks on the South, such as the sinking, in 2010, of the Cheonan, a naval vessel, which killed forty-six seamen. Deterrence relies on “a degree of professionalism and readiness for crisis response that can only come through military training and exercises,” he said. “If North Korea is not moving toward significant disclosure of its nuclear forces and then taking significant, verifiable steps in the direction of denuclearization, then we should resume pressure, including major exercises, by next spring.”
More surprising still, Trump raised the previously taboo prospect of withdrawing some of America’s nearly thirty thousand troops in South Korea. “I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” he said. That may have been improvisation. Hours earlier, Defense Secretary James Mattis had told reporters, “I don’t believe” that troops were up for negotiation. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and usually a Trump defender, said on NBC that he would “violently disagree” with any removal of troops from South Korea.
Nobody greeted the news from Singapore with more delight than China. For years, Chinese officials have urged Trump to freeze military exercises in South Korea, which Beijing regards as a threatening gesture in its neighborhood. Shortly after the announcement, the Global Times, a nationalist state newspaper in Beijing, hailed Trump’s move in an editorial headlined “End of ‘War Games’ Will Be a Big Step Forward for Peninsula.” Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, “The Chinese are breathing a deep sigh of relief. They got what they most wanted.” She added, “And, best of all, it came out of President Trump’s mouth. The Chinese didn’t even have to rely on Kim Jong Un to do their bidding.”
Any negotiations in the months and years ahead will be fraught: the United States will need to get Kim to provide a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. International inspectors will seek to verify them. Only then can the U.S. begin to imagine dismantling them. But, more immediately, Trump may have also precipitated an outcome that he does not fully grasp: by suspending military exercises, and alluding to removing troops from South Korea, he will stir doubts about the strength of America’s commitment to its allies in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. They will have no choice but to begin to reimagine America’s role in the region, and their relationships to Beijing. From Trump’s perspective, the encounter with Kim was an end in itself. For those who bear the consequences of his words and actions, this is just the beginning.