- President Donald Trump said he set out to denuclearize North Korea, yet intelligence reports routinely point out that the country has continued work on nuclear weapons.
- Trump’s major success in dealing with North Korea, forcing China to enforce UN sanctions on Pyongyang, has totally unravelled.
- But an expert says Trump must have known denuclearization was a long shot, and he’s made progress at bringing North Korea into peace talks.
- Trump has already lowered the tensions with North Korea and created an opening for peace in Northeast Asia.
- Experts and pundits can criticise Trump, but he’s been extracting political benefits from a situation that seems to suit him just fine.
President Donald Trump entered talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with the stated goal of denuclearizing the country, yet wave after wave of US intelligence reports have proven that Pyongyang has continued to build missiles and bombs.
Meanwhile, Trump’s major success in dealing with North Korea, getting China to enforce UN sanctions on Pyongyang, has totally unravelled.
Since the Singapore summit, China and Russia have resumed significant levels of trade with North Korea, stabilizing an economy that had been tanking. So North Korea has achieved its major stated goal from the talks, sanctions relief, while the US has barely moved the needle towards denuclearization.
But denuclearization isn’t the only game in town. There’s another goal worth pursuing on the Korean Peninsula, and Trump has brought us further towards it than any previous president: Peace.
North Korea’s nuclear threat is over
Upon leaving Singapore, Trump declared an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. Many media outlets dismissed this as premature and baseless, but according to Yun Sun, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center, Trump has a legitimate point.
“If we believe that North Korean possession of missiles and nuclear material, that by itself is a threat, the capacity, then if the North Koreans have the capacity, they have a threat,” said Sun. “But, the deescalation of tensions would diminish or eventually eliminate the North Korea desire to use those materials,” thereby lowering or eliminating the threat.
North Korea still has nuclear weapons and missiles. So do China, Russia, Pakistan, India, France, the UK and Israel, but nobody talks about the threat to the US posed by France’s nukes, because relations have been friendly between these historic allies for generations.
Denuclearizing North Korea will take years, if not decades, experts assess, but Trump has begun to rehabilitate relations in just a few months. Both have a real impact on threat levels.
Sun said that partisan politics have in part driven the desire to call Trump’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea a failure, but objectively, US-North Korean relations have improved, and with that, comes a gradual reduction in threat level.
Many assume Trump is dumb. Don’t.
Experts fear that Trump may read one of the bombshell media stories about North Korea’s continued nuclear efforts and angrily threaten Kim as he did in the “fire and fury” days, but “that position assumes Trump is dumb,” said Sun.
“A more probable scenario” than Trump foolishly not listening to his own intelligence reports and instead taking Kim’s word for things, “is that Trump understood he was not going to get the kind of denuclearization that many in the US defined, but he’s was willing to pursue talks, not because it was going to produce denuclearization, but because he can extract benefits out of the process,” said Sun.
Trump frequently responds to media reporting, but he also receives daily intelligence briefings on the source material that later percolates down to the media. Basically, he must know North Korea is continuing work on nuclear weapons. He must have known denuclearization was a long shot. Likely, he knew these things before the media and pundits that challenge him so.
A second, parallel fear held by many in the expert community is that North Korea will again launch a missile or undertake some provocative act that causes an angry reaction from Trump. These experts hold that North Korea refers to its nuclear weapons as a “treasured sword,” and won’t part with them.
But North Korea already said it would stop nuclear and long-range missile testing, and Sun says she can’t imagine it happening without a serious deterioration of relations first.
Meanwhile, Trump can accurately say that North Korea stopped its provocations after he cracked down on them, leaving it to his political opponents to explain on TV why that’s a bad thing.
Peace in Northeast Asia
Since the Singapore summit, North Korea has repatriated remains of US soldiers killed in the 1950s Korean War. South Korea has invited North Koreans along to the Asian Games, where Kim himself got an invite. North Korea has improved ties with China, and removed anti-US propaganda from shops and pronouncements.
Kim’s personal focus has shifted from nuclear weapons to domestic economics. When before North Korean photography showed Kim mainly overseeing military installations around Pyongyang, he’s recently been pictured out among fields and factories supervising workers. Unlike continued sanctions and pressure proposed by Trump’s opponents, improved relations with North Korea can actually improve the lives of the 25 million that live there.
In South Korea, an alternative vision to denuclearization has started to take root among the pro-engagement crowd: A peace treaty.
“If you are pro-engagement, you’ll say Trump has achieved a lot. It’s a very political issue. If you’re a [US] Democrat you’re going to say that Trump has not achieved anything new,” said Sun.
But as is often the case, both sides of an issue can hold part of the truth. North Korea hasn’t seriously embarked on denuclearizing, but Trump’s summit with Kim has increased the peace. It’s still early days in a shaky process of normalizing ties, but for now, Trump’s setback on denuclearization doesn’t undo the strides towards peace.
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