Why you should care
Has America’s greatest showman outdone himself or just stuck his foot in it?
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
What’s your basic take on the summit?
President Trump is taking a huge gamble, politically and substantively. On the substantive side, he is betting on handshakes, smiles, flattery and personal chemistry to produce over time what the so-called summit did not — real progress on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. On the political side, he risks charges of naïveté or worse by giving away concessions to an authoritarian, murderous dictator with a record of cheating on deals in the hope of eventual reciprocity. Or are we giving Trump the reality-TV star too much credit? After all, Trump, who seems to live mostly in the moment and shows little understanding of causality, may simply have been seduced by the prospect of a great TV moment — which, let’s face it, it was. And he will spin that like a carnival barker in the coming days.
Do you think Trump or Kim came away with more substantial concessions from the other?
No contest. In round one, Kim racked up win after win. After years of isolation and well-deserved shunning by the international community, he got a coming-out party hosted by the leader of the world’s greatest power proclaiming he’s “honored” to meet him. Kim’s biggest score, though, was Trump’s pledge to end U.S.–South Korean military exercises on the peninsula and a presidential pledge to consider ending the U.S. troop presence. This is something North Korea and China have wanted for years, and it is an absolutely stunning giveaway of U.S. leverage with no price asked. Trump will regret this.
Is this a win for China?
Yes. Not only has China wanted to end U.S. military exercises and presence on the peninsula, but it also wants to weaken ties between the United States and its South Korean ally. Further, it wants to reduce U.S. influence in Asia, something on which Trump got a head start by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership his first week in office. And by calling the U.S. exercises “provocative,” Trump used language Pyongyang and Beijing normally use, and they will throw this back at him if Washington ever wants to start these again. I’m convinced that China counseled Kim on this strategy and on how to deal with Trump in the two meetings Kim has had with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in recent weeks.
Is there anything you have seen in the joint statement that suggests progress beyond the 1993 U.S.–North Korea agreement?
No. North Korea has been far more forthcoming in the past — but to be clear, this has usually been followed by broken promises or cheating. At different times in its nuclear history, North Korea has pledged to freeze and destroy its facilities (and sometimes has); joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; declared the existence and location of nuclear sites; and hosted on-site inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. For example, in 2008, Pyongyang went so far as to specify in Six Party Talks (North and South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan) 15 nuclear sites, 30 kilograms of plutonium, and said it had used two kilograms in its 2006 nuclear test. This was to lead to denuclearization but, tellingly, the whole thing broke down over disagreement on how the international community would verify compliance. If a verification agreement could not be achieved on such a small program, it’s hard to imagine one can be devised for today’s more advanced one. And the bar for Trump needs to be especially high because of his condemnation of the Iranian nuclear verification process, which is far more intrusive than anything the North Koreans have ever experienced.
How are America’s allies — Japan and South Korea – likely to view Trump’s unilateral decision to suspend military exercises over the Korean Peninsula?
Both countries must be puzzled and dismayed. South Korea’s defense ministry has already said as much, opining that it would be trying to figure out what Trump intends. Japan will see any U.S. step back from active presence and engagement as weakening America’s commitment to Tokyo’s defense. The Pentagon and American military officials in South Korea were also caught off guard; the latter said they’d received no guidance on changing the exercises. This has all the earmarks of one of those impulsive Trump decisions that advisers will try to walk back or that he will portray as misinterpreted — or maybe just as “fake news.”
Does the lack of a timeline or any deadlines mean this is a toothless agreement?
Whatever teeth this agreement has will have to come from follow-up diplomatic dentistry. Let’s be clear — this is just the start of what will need to be a long, complicated process. This is actually negotiation in reverse. In effect there has been no negotiation — just a mandate of sorts to begin. At least the two sides are talking. With hard work, professional diplomacy (that nasty deep state again) and some goodwill, a worthy agreement could come of it. But a summit like this normally caps off the real work. So don’t hold your breath. No champagne yet.