Donald Trump is ever the showman, and he put on quite the show in Singapore in a surreal meeting with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.
Kim was overheard, via his translator, saying it was like something from “a science fiction movie,” and that was about right. The representative of a gangster state so immiserated and backwards that he couldn’t even fly his own plane to the summit was greeted warmly, nay fulsomely, by the leader of the free world.
We are fully aware of the dictates of realpolitik and the need at times to put aside our values in the service of our interests. But praising this tinpot killer as a promising young man, as Trump did in Singapore, is gross and unnecessary.
The president occasionally sounded cautious notes about what would come of his high-stakes diplomacy with Kim, although in general he couldn’t curb his enthusiasm. For Trump, it’s never enough just to say something is okay. So, Kim is a great negotiator, he’s smart, he’s funny, he loves his people and is very popular back home.
Even if we have to treat with Kim, we should never forget — or let him forget — that he’s a parasite on his people who violates every civilized norm and runs the most hideous police state in the world. Reagan, of course, never stopped talking about Soviet oppression even as he met with Soviet leaders. Pressuring the North on its wholesale violations of human rights should be an element of our pressure campaign against it — indeed, the nature of the regime is at the root of its recklessness and danger.
The buttering up of Kim would at least be a little more understandable if he had made major concessions at the summit. The meeting was initially billed as the moment when Kim would perhaps commit to complete, verifiable, rapid denuclearization. Instead, he produced more of the same — vague assurances of disarmament — in exchange for American concessions.
First, there was the legitimizing fact of the meeting with an American head of state itself. Second, there was the communiqué that accepted the North Korean formulation of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, its term of art for ending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Third, Trump promised to end joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises, a long-time demand of North Korea; the president called these “war games” expensive and provocative.
Since these are the kind of benefits that the North has always sought in exchange for any concessions on its part, it’s not clear what else we have to give going forward except sanctions relief.
The president says that the sanctions will remain, and this is welcome, but maintaining them won’t be so easy. The nature of a sanctions regime is that if you aren’t steadily increasing pressure, you are probably losing ground, because your adversary is usually finding new ways to cheat. South Korea will push to start doing business with the North on the basis of the warm atmospherics of the meeting, and China will have even less incentive to squeeze the North.
What to do now? We need to make every effort to keep the sanctions in place, to come up with clear, unmistakable benchmarks toward denuclearization, and be willing to declare this latest iteration of the West’s long negotiations with North Korea a failure, if or when Pyongyang balks at following through. It would be difficult to give up on this process, as Trump jokingly said in his press conference, now that he has vested so much in it. But if anyone can completely reverse course once he’s convinced he’s been played, it’s him.
Perhaps Kim Jong-un is truly interested in parting with his regime’s weapons in exchange for an economic opening. If so, maybe Trump’s over-the-top salesmanship in Singapore will have made a difference. But we fear that the North is playing its usual hand — selling the West a theoretical cessation of its weapons program, yet again — and playing it well.