Don't dismiss the Trump-Kim summit too quickly

A consensus seems to be emerging in much of Washington that President Donald Trump gave away too much and got too little in his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last week. Granting the Hermit Kingdom's brutal dictator a photo op with the leader of the free world, promising to suspend large-scale U.S.-South Korean military exercises, offering to find a way to guarantee North Korea's security and virtually ignoring the country's horrible human rights record — all while getting little out of Kim other than the usual vague, nonbinding promise to denuclearize — might seem a long way from the art of the deal.

But there may be a method to Trump's madness. There is at least reason to hope for a successful arms-control and broader detente process.

Consider first some of Trump's purportedly excessive giveaways. Yes, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance at this summit, and perhaps a bit too much fawning over the North Korean strongman. But if diplomacy is to have a chance, some effort to build camaraderie is sensible.

Trump made mistakes, of course. For example, he should not have called the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises that take place twice a year with well over 20,000 troops "provocative." But they are indeed large and, yes, they are expensive. They are also replaceable. In the United States, the military rarely conducts such enormous training activities. Even its larger drills generally involve no more than a few thousand personnel. The huge exercises with South Korea produce military benefits, but their larger purpose is to show strength and resolve. The crucial military purposes of the exercises can be achieved by breaking them into smaller pieces.

It is true the international sanctions regime of "maximum pressure" against North Korea, imposed in the aftermath of its three intercontinental ballistic-missile tests and one nuclear test in 2017, is already gradually weakening. That is a regrettable, but almost inevitable, casualty of a promising diplomatic process. Trump needs to be attentive to this dynamic and his administration should warn countries such as China against outright defiance of the ban.

Maintaining a hopeful view of the summit and of what it means for U.S.-North Korean relations will be sustainable only if Pyongyang's behavior improves meaningfully and permanently. Kim's moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is a start, but only a start. North Korea is, even today, surely still enriching uranium, reprocessing plutonium and building bombs, as well as longer-range rockets.

The onus is therefore now squarely on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, given his post-summit charge to undertake substantive negotiations. Pompeo needs to make real progress this year in stopping North Korea from increasing its nuclear and longer-range missile arsenals. That will require getting North Korea to submit a database of its nuclear facilities and deploying international inspectors to those sites. The inspectors will have to confirm the nuclear facilities have been shut down, ultimately ensuring that centrifuges and other weapons-production systems have been dismantled and shipped out of the country.

But many of the sanctions should remain until Pyongyang truly does disarm.

Only when we see whether North Korea will go along with this kind of plan and begin its verifiable implementation will we really know how to evaluate what just happened in Singapore.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

 

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