By Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images. Donald Trump speaks in the Roosevelt Room.
Taking a break from the Kavanaugh confirmation battle to reprise his role as peacemaker, Donald Trump offered an unqualified endorsement on Wednesday of the “tremendous progress” being made on the Korean Peninsula following a three-day summit between North and South Korea. “We had very good news,” he told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. “They met, and we had some great responses.” On Twitter, Trump was even more effusive, calling the latest developments “Very exciting!”
The initial results of this week’s meeting between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in do offer hope that their two countries, which have been locked in a state of frozen conflict since 1953, will formally end the Korean War and begin a process of rapprochement. Kim reaffirmed his pledge to dismantle North Korea’s Tongchang-ri missile engine testing site and said he would consider shuttering its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Moon and Kim agreed to resume economic cooperation between the Koreas—including reconnecting rail and road links—and reached an agreement that will ease tensions on the North-South border and in the Yellow Sea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had canceled a trip to Pyongyang last month amid a breakdown in negotiations, quickly declared his intention to re-engage.
Korea experts, however, remain deeply skeptical as to whether Pyongyang is negotiating in good faith or taking advantage of Trump’s unrelenting desire to make a deal—any deal—that allows him to claim success. “Trump is determined to show that he can do what other people can’t,” a former senior United States official told me. “The substance of what he achieves clearly matters a lot less.” Indeed, there wasn’t much new in the Kim-Moon talks from the perspective of the U.S. For one, Kim had already promised to dismantle the Tongchang-ri testing site during the Singapore summit; the only new development is Kim’s pledge to allow “concerned countries” to observe its destruction. As for the shutdown of Yongbyon, Kim “expressed the will to continue taking further steps like permanent dismantlement” of the nuclear facility, but only if the U.S. takes unspecified “corresponding steps.” Veterans of Foggy Bottom and Korea experts I spoke with stressed that these moves, while welcome, do not constitute concrete steps toward denuclearization. “They are great P.R.,” the former U.S. official said, characterizing Kim’s gestures as “clever” but “empty.”
More troubling, these experts say, is how Kim has seized on his relationship with Moon to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. As Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury, told me, Moon has a different agenda than the United States when it comes to North Korea. “This is about opening up relations with North Korea, it is not about disarmament,” he said. “They just need to do enough on disarmament to keep the Americans happy.” Moon, after all, cares far more about avoiding a cataclysmic war than whether North Korea ultimately becomes a de facto nuclear-weapons state.
Those shifting goal posts have left Washington on the back foot. Instead of focusing on denuclearization, as the Trump administration is demanding, Pyongyang has urged a formal end to the Korean War—something that U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser John Bolton, reportedly worry could have implications for America’s military presence in South Korea. “They are drifting away from the traditional positions that the Americans and the South Koreans have always had,” the former U.S. official explained. The language of Moon and Kim’s call for a “land of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats,” this person said, “implies that there is a reciprocal lifting of nuclear threat and weapons on both sides. That is to say that the Americans would get rid of the capacity to use nuclear weapons there. . . . And it is hard to imagine that the Americans will disarm.”
Where all this leaves the U.S. is unclear. “The R.O.K. leadership really wants some sort of peace deal. Ditto POTUS,” said a former senior State Department official who worked in the region. The result would be a radical shift in American foreign policy in the region, which for decades has emphasized denuclearization as a precondition for peace. Instead, given Kim’s disinclination to disarm and Trump’s missteps, it seems increasingly likely that North Korea will gain the international legitimacy that past U.S. administration’s have forcefully denied. “The president has squandered much of the leverage we had over Kim before Singapore—his regime’s isolation in the world and the united sanctions of the major economies on North Korea,” argued former U.S. ambassador Nicholas Burns. “It is now likely that North Korea will enjoy the benefits of détente with South Korea and weaker sanctions from the rest of the world. The U.S. is worse off and less able to convince Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal.”
Any departure from Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric is surely a net positive, given the unacceptable human cost of an outright war involving North Korea. (As Trump himself put it on Wednesday, “He’s calm, I’m calm—so we’ll see what happens.”) But within foreign-policy circles, there are concerns that this could be the calm before the storm—particularly if the Republican Party loses one or even both houses of Congress in November. Sources I spoke with expressed fear that if Trump finds himself constrained domestically, he will return his attention to foreign policy, where presidents have much more of a free hand. “Suffice it to say, we seem to be on the threshold of significant progress, but that mortals may kick it away—think of what the political situation could look like on November 10,” Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence officer and State Department adviser on North Korea negotiations, told me. “It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy. Maybe Shakespeare. Take your pick.”