The Corner

National Security & Defense

Grading the Singapore Summit

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk after lunch at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore June 12, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

How to grade the Singapore summit? I think the most fair-minded answer is that it’s too soon to tell, but there’s every reason in the world to be deeply skeptical that Kim will make good on his commitments to “de-nuclearize.” Why? Because: North Korea has promised to do exactly that — with far more specificity — in the past. The actual paper agreement that Trump and Kim signed is not just worthless on its own, it’s less than worthless given that it literally recycles past worthless promises as if they are new ones. That’s contrary to the opinions of a lot of people on Twitter and TV who think — and feel — that this is Trump’s masterstroke. This isn’t a criticism of Trump. It’s just a simple recognition of reality. The Norks have bamboozled everyone else who extracted promises from them. By all means, let’s hope for the best. But North Korean duplicity is normal.

Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that if Kim were sincere about getting rid of his nukes, his own regime would kill him. The nuclear program is a unifying tool of state propaganda, celebrated and mythologized in grade schools and everywhere else in Korean society. Expecting them to get rid of them is like expecting the Hell’s Angels to forswear motorcycles in favor of minivans.

Still if Kim is actually sincere this time, then the summit will prove to be a huge success. That is a monumental “if,” but it’s one I think every sane person should hope for.

However, there are many people who want to score the summit as an instant success or failure in real time. On those terms, here are some preliminary notes on my scorecard.

It’s a success if:

  • You think a general improvement of relations with North Korea is a desirable end in itself.
  • You care deeply and sincerely about the return of American remains from the Korean War (by the way, we pay the North Koreans about $1 million for each set of remains, so this isn’t quite the “goodwill” gesture it’s being made out to be).
  • You think we were in fact on the brink of war during the whole “fire and fury” chapter and that talking is always preferable to fighting.
  • You think North Korea deserves to be welcomed back into the community of nations and be seen as a co-equal nation with the United States of America.
  • You think any spectacle where Trump dominates the news coverage is good.
  • You’re Dennis Rodman.
  • You’re a Republican strategist eager to keep the peacemaker story through the midterms.
  • You’re Kim Jong-un.

It’s a failure if:

  • You thought the international opprobrium on North Korea was well-deserved and maintaining pressure on the regime was a valuable and correct policy.
  • You think an American president heaping praise on an evil dictator in exchange for worthless promises is grotesque.
  • You thought Trump could simply walk into a room and charm North Korea out of its nuclear weapons.
  • You place a high value on the issue of human rights and the evils of the North Korean gulag.
  • You think U.S.–South Korea military exercises are too valuable a chip to trade for more implausible promises (though in fairness, there’s plenty of time to restart them on schedule, so this may have been a clever and costless chip — though not informing the Pentagon about this in advance strikes me as ill-advised).
  • You cringe when you watch this sort of thing.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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