Let’s speak plainly. If your only criteria for the Singapore talks is whether they decrease the short-term prospect of cataclysmic war on the Korean Peninsula, then Trump’s brief summit with Kim Jong-un is a success. It may also be very popular.
The language in the agreed text promises that both sides will work toward “denuclearization” and peace. Donald Trump said afterward the agreement means “the complete denuclearization of North Korea, and it will be verified.”
What is he even talking about? This is language that has been used in agreements with North Korea before.
Trump will soon discover that while agreements with North Korea may generate peace prizes, they stop neither the nuclear buildup nor the maniacal threats of war from Pyongyang. And it’s hard not to think Trump is propagandizing when he calls the sub-400-word text “very comprehensive.”
A more mature analysis needs to ask the following question: Has Trump’s engagement with North Korea decreased the chance of war — by increasing the North Korean regime’s chances for long-term survival? More frighteningly, has it increased the likelihood of Pyongyang consolidating the control of the Korean Peninsula under the rule of the Kim dynasty?
The latter possibility sounds far-fetched to most people. South Korea has a thriving, prosperous society and political freedom. Combined with its U.S. ally, it has a dramatic and decisive military edge over the North Koreans. How could a defective, insecure, poor North Korea, which can barely manage its own small electrical grid, possibly absorb one of the richest nations on earth?
The answer is simple. North Korea just has to keep on winning. North Korea can achieve the goal of unification on Pyongyang’s terms if it continues to extract diplomatic concessions for bad behavior, if it continues to put wedges between the U.S. and South Korea, and if Chinese and Russian interests continue to converge toward the goal of pushing the United States out of the region. It is very likely that Kim will continue the diplomatic tour, seeking an end to certain sanctions. China may already be flouting the sanctions regime.
We should all be grateful for the atmosphere of deescalation. It is much preferable to war. Millions of lives in South Korea, Japan, and North Korea depend on there not being a war. But U.S. policy must also focus on the long-term protection of millions of South Koreans from the predations and ambitions of this gulag-state to their north.
A real denuclearization of North Korea would be a great step in that direction. Despite the agreement’s words today, that seems a remote possibility. In its absence, the U.S. must keep up the economic and diplomatic pressure on the North Korean state. After today, that may be much harder.
Trump’s heart is in the right place: peace. But there is no evidence he has any idea how to maintain and expand a just peace on the Korean Peninsula.
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