Did Kim Jong-un Get the Best of Donald Trump?

and Kim Jong-un is, to paraphrase Lenin, “What, for what?” That is, what is Kim Jong-un iwilling to give up, and what will United States provide to Pyongyang in exchange? As Ethan Epstein has pointed out, “the meeting in Singapore was no negotiation.”

“You don’t hash out the end of a 60-year conflict and the elimination of a complex nuclear weapons program over the course of 45 minutes,” Epstein writes. “The summit was simply the ratification—and a photo-op—of diplomatic spade work that has been going on for months.” The real work will continue between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and lower-level diplomats and their North Korean counterparts.

But what was agreed upon broadly by Trump and Kim is spelled out in four statements at the center of their joint communique, and it’s a good place to start assessing the question of “What, for what?” Let’s take them one at a time.

The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

The United States maintains diplomatic relations with every country in the world but four. North Korea joins the rogue states of Syria and Iran. (We also have no formal relations with Bhutan, a small landlocked state between India and China.)

The setting in Singapore offers a preview of what such relations would look like. The image of the DPRK’s flag presented next to the American stars and stripes, photos of Kim and the American president smiling and shaking hands, the possibility raised by Trump that Kim could soon visit the United States and even the White House—all of it elevates North Korea to a level it has long sought, that of a member of the community of nations.

It’s likely that the conditions that open up those relations would also open up the so-called Hermit Kingdom to outside influences and, perhaps, a political change within the totalitarian state. But diplomatic relations with the United States are not a sufficient condition for liberalization, as our formal relations with the Soviet Union throughout its 74-year existence did not alone bring down that country’s totalitarian communist regime. Nor have decades of relations with Beijing liberalized Chinese politics.

The normalization of relations with the United States, without significant changes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its political system, would be a net win for the Kim regime.

The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

This statement is too vague to address the differences in views between the two countries about what a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula” actually looks like. For the United States, it means mothballing North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, a formal end to the war between North and South Korea, and perhaps an eventual withdrawal of American troops from South Korea.

For North Korea, peace means unity—that much is clear from Kim’s recent agreement with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. But what sort of unity? In the past, the North Korean conception of peace and reunification of the two Koreas means peace and reunification under the Kim regime’s terms and ideology. If there was any reason the Americans came away from Singapore with the belief Kim’s views on peace through reunification have changed, Trump hasn’t mentioned it.

Neither South Korea nor our other regional ally, Japan, would settle for such a plan for peace. So how this would be reconciled remains to be seen.

Reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

It’s notable that denuclearization is dealt with in only the third of Trump and Kim’s four joint statements. The whole reason for the United States to pursue a summit with North Korea was to pursue an end to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Denuclearization is the top priority of the United States government with respect to North Korea.

But the best Trump could get from Kim was a commitment “to work toward complete denuclearization.” Not a commitment to denuclearization itself, and certainly not a more defined explanation of what the term even means. This was the most important task for President Trump, Republican senator Cory Gardner told me last week. “The key objective for Trump is to drill down hard on what Kim wants to denuclearize,” Gardner said.

For the United States and the free world, the goal is “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” What experts call CVID is a necessary precondition, Trump administration officials insisted in the run-up to Singapore, for any concessions. But according to the statement, Kim was only willing to agree to “complete denuclearization.” It may read like a parsing of diplomatic words, but anything short of CVID could give the historically perfidious North Korean regime a window to return to developing its nuclear weapons program.

Elsewhere the joint statement notes that Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK.” What this will mean in practice is unclear, but it may give the North Koreans the ability to push for one of its own denuclearization goals—the removal of the nuclear-backed security guarantee for South Korea, which Pyongyang views as a direct threat.

Whatever happens, coming away from Singapore without a commitment to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization means the United States has fallen short of its goal.

The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

This is a reflection of a Trump priority—he is keenly aware of the political support he receives from the POW/MIA community—that has zero cost to Kim and the North Koreans. It also follows from the release of three American hostages from North Korea weeks before the Singapore summit, a gesture from Kim that cost him very little but brought the reality of the summit with Trump closer.

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