- President Donald Trump is cheerleading a new inter-Korean summit despite meager progress on denuclearizing North Korea.
- Trump seems not to care about North Korea’s nukes – and as long as they’re not pointed at the US, most in the US probably don’t either.
- Trump can make history by presiding over the end of the Korean War and removing the threat of nuclear war with North Korea.
- But in the long run, the US would pay a steep price if it acquiesced to Kim’s way of doing things now.
President Donald Trump has routinely praised, and even cheer-leaded, diplomatic efforts towards North Korea. But his enthusiasm comes despite making essentially zero progress towards his own stated goal – denuclearization.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in just concluded three days together north of the demilitarized border that’s separated the country for 70 years.
The pair hugged, shook hands, went sight-seeing, and posed for photographs in what must go down as a public relations blitz for the North Korean dictator.
The Korean leaders declared a reduction in military forces at their mutual border, some economic cooperation projects, and a “new era” in inter-Korean relations. But the summit had another purpose, which was convincing the US to continue with diplomacy, which had stalled due to North Korea’s refusal to make concrete steps towards disarmament. For Kim, the move worked beautifully.
When Kim said he’d take some steps towards denuclearization, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Trump, latched on to these and inflated their importance in messages to the US public.
Kim agreed to close a missile testing site and some ambiguous parts of a nuclear research center in front of unspecified international observers, but only if the US follows through on the joint declaration Trump signed with Kim in Singapore in June.
“Very exciting!” Trump tweeted after the agreement. If North Korea’s plan was to offer limited steps towards denuclearization to get the US back on board with talks, it absolutely worked. Pompeo said the US would “engage immediately” with North Korea following what it framed as a breakthrough.
The fact is that Trump, Moon, and Kim, have all walked down a diplomatic path for months now without any real progress on dismantling nukes, and none of them seem to care. In the meantime, the Korean Peninsula has become a more peaceful place, and the US public no longer worries about nuclear war.
If North Korea wanted to denuclearize, it could do so simply and relatively quickly. But it has refused even the most basic steps despite continuous pressure from the Trump administration.
The US repeatedly has asked North Korea for an inventory of its nuclear arsenal, and has repeatedly been denied. Instead, North Korea likes choreographed media events where it destroys some non-essential components of its nuclear infrastructure.
“I’m not seeing any action” towards real denuclearization, Yun Sun, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank told Business Insider.
Trump keeps getting rebuffed in his attempts to get real results and action out of North Korea, all the while praising what he sees as progress.
In fact, Trump seems to not care about denuclearization as much as he cares about his relationship with Kim. Following the Singapore summit, Trump repeatedly stressed that he thinks North Korea will denuclearize because he considers Kim a trustworthy guy.
Sun told Business Insider: “Denuclearization has been the top priority for the US and no president can ignore that issue and embrace a North Korea that is not on the same path to denuclearization.”
But North Korea isn’t just a nuclear arsenal, it’s a country of 25 million people, and any diplomacy must be broader than the narrow issue of whether or not the country has nukes, said Sun.
“I don’t think the president cares as much about denuclearization,” said Sun. “He wants a diplomatic victory. He wants to be the US president that ended the Korean war.”
Arms control experts hate him
Measured on the extent to which North Korea has parted with its nukes, Trump has absolutely and tremendously failed in his diplomatic efforts.
But does the US public care if North Korea has nuclear weapons, as long as they’re not pointed at the US?
Trump has, undoubtedly, ushered in an era of warmed relations and eased tensions with North Korea. The threat of nuclear war, despite the presence of nuclear weapons, has receded dramatically under Trump.
For the US voting public, not the tiny crowd of arms control experts whose constant policy recommendations and doomsday predictions go routinely unheeded, the North Korean threat has ceased and relative peace has set in.
The US stands to lose significant traction in Asia in the coming decades if Trump allows the Korean war to end, thereby “undermining the legality and legitimacy of the [US-South Korean] alliance,” said Sun.
But that’s a problem for another day. For now, Trump is winning North Korean diplomacy on smiles alone.
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