U.S. President Donald Trump’s eye for television spectacle paid off on Sunday when he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Trump made history by crossing briefly into North Korea to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit the state. That foray was followed by nearly an hour of talks that concluded with agreement to resume negotiations over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
For all the excitement, the theater was predictable. And while history was being made, an old danger persists: Trump’s hunger for a deal will result in the legitimation of North Korea’s nuclear program. Nothing is more threatening to regional peace and stability.
Trump wants the world to think that a tweet asking Kim to join him for a handshake prompted the meeting. It is hard to believe that the idea just occurred to Trump — the two men exchanged letters a few weeks ago — or that the schedules of national leaders can be coordinated that quickly. Kim made the trip, however, greeting Trump at the DMZ and he escorted the U.S. president a few steps into North Korea, where they posed for pictures and then returned to South Korean territory.
Trump and Kim were joined by South Korean President Moon Jae-in for more pictures, and then the two men adjourned for a 53-minute bilateral conversation with aides. The mood befitted the moment: Both men spoke warmly of their friendship, and applauded the other for having the courage and the wisdom to seize the opportunity. When the meeting was over, Trump said they agreed to designate teams to resume nuclear talks. The U.S. side would be led by special envoy Stephen Biegun, who would work under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Given North Korea’s reluctance to engage with Biegun and its criticism of Pompeo — he has been accused of “engaging in sophistry” and making “foolish and dangerous comments” — it is hard to be optimistic about prospects for progress.
Kim revealed more than he intended when he noted that the “great relationship” between Trump and himself “will provide the magical power with which to overcome hardships and obstacles.” He understands that Trump is personally invested in the relationship with North Korea and that consideration could override all other concerns. He is hoping that Trump’s desire to close a deal will be more important than the contents of any agreement.
Trump denies that possibility, insisting that “Speed is not the object. We want to see if we can do a really comprehensive, good deal.” Unfortunately, his credibility is suspect. The U.S. president insists that his diplomacy with the North has been a success because he has a relationship with Kim and the situation on the Korean Peninsula has become less tense, noting on Sunday that “We are in a much different place than we were two and a half years ago.”
Trump is partially right. Tensions have been reduced but they flared because he rose to the bait with a fiery response to Pyongyang’s provocations after taking office. North Korea always tests a new president; one with a sense of history or a readiness to listen to advisers would have been more restrained in his response.
More worrying is that Trump ignores the absence of substantive progress in nuclear talks. Until now — and we shall see if this week’s meeting changes established procedure — there has been no real conversation among lower-level officials. All substantive negotiations take place between Trump and Kim. North Korea has suspended nuclear tests but all experts believe that is because it no longer needs to test. Ballistic missile tests have stopped but there have been short-range missile tests and missile production continues unabated. There is still no agreed definition of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — the key objective of the talks — nor any inventory of North Korean capabilities and components.
This is even more troubling because Kim’s ultimate goal is to habituate the world to a North Korea with nuclear weapons. The more time that Pyongyang has those weapons and the U.S. president says that is not a problem the easier it is for North Korea to keep them.
This situation — a nuclear freeze — is utterly unacceptable to Japan, especially after the president spent the last week raising questions about the Japan-U.S. security alliance. The North is estimated to have between 20 to 60 nuclear weapons and while it may not have the ability to deliver one to the United States homeland, it can threaten Japan and South Korea. That is why previous U.S. governments, including the Trump administration just last year, demanded the “rapid denuclearization of North Korea.” If Kim can get Trump to abandon that objective, he may credit his “magical power,” but the real explanation will be a president more committed to spectacle than substance.