Trump's North Korea policy hangs by a thread — but he may be the only one who can fix it

Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty Images
  • North Korea returned the remains of 55 bodies, thought to belong to US servicemembers, on Friday.
  • The repatriation – on the 65th anniversary of the armistice that paused the Korean War – was a commitment Kim made at his summit with Donald Trump.
  • Every other element of Trump’s North Korea policy looks to have taken a nosedive, but this represents a hopeful thread.
  • North Korea still hasn’t denuclearized and remains difficult in talks with the US.
  • But if the two countries can build trust over time, Trump’s approach has a chance of working.

North Korea returned the remains of 55 bodies, thought to belong to US servicemembers on Friday, coinciding with the 65th anniversary of the armistice that paused the Korean War.

The symbolic move represents the single, hopeful thread of President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy, as the rest of it crumbles.

“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” Trump tweeted.

“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for positive change,” the White House said in a statement.

Benjamin Young, a North Korea expert from George Washington University previously told Business Insider: “The repatriation of the Korean War remains is significant in that it partially closes a painful chapter in US-Korea relations.”

“It’s significant from a historical perspective and is symbolic.”

That Trump and Kim Jong Un’s joint statement at Singapore lists the “immediate” repatriation of the bodies shows the historical and symbolic importance of the repatriations, but it wasn’t easy getting here.

Trump agreed to the summit with Kim on vague promises of denuclearization which met with near universal doubt.

Many former top experts advised Trump to skip the meeting entirely, seeing it as providing Kim with international legitimacy even though he oversees some of the worst human rights violations in the world, including keeping an estimated 2.6 million “modern slaves.”

Trump’s policy hangs by a thread

North korea ship to shipUS TreasuryUS Treasury photos show a ship-to-ship transfer with a North Korea-linked vessel.

After the summit, Trump saw his greatest success on the North Korean front swiftly undone.

The “maximum pressure” regime of economic, diplomatic, and military pressure completely evaporated, even though the administration insists it is still in effect.

The China-North Korea border again hums with commerce and activity, and Chinese tourists again crowd the streets of Pyongyang, analysis from NK News points out. Fuel prices have dropped, indicating an increased supply.

“Numerous” sanctioned North Korean ships have appeared in South Korean ports, NKNews found.

North Korea has realised a primary goal of its US-facing diplomacy – sanctions relief – while only providing minimal, reversible, and unverifiable dismantlement of a tiny fraction of its nuclear arsenal.

The audacity of hope

Viewed as a transaction, the North Korea process has ripped off the US by handing over international legitimacy and an end to US-South Korean military drills in exchange for baby steps towards disarming.

Viewed as a budding relationship, Trump has made unprecedented progress in healing relations with Pyongyang.

Returning the bodies of US soldiers doesn’t change anything on the ground in the Koreas. North Korea still has artillery guns and missiles ready to bear down on Seoul, and possibly the US, and they haven’t budged.

But the measure builds confidence and trust, which is sorely needed. North Korea dragged its feet and stood up US officials in previous talks about repatriating the bodies, but eventually came through.

No other US president has been willing to talk to North Korea, citing its illegal nuclear program, serious human rights violations, and countless kidnappings and attacks on civilians. But Trump took a unique approach in meeting Kim, and has earned a unique result.

At the Aspen Strategy Forum, Commander of the US forces in Korea General Vincent Brooks shed light on how US objectives in North Korea have shifted from military to diplomatic:

“Our challenge now, candidly, is to continue to make progress but to make that progress in an environment that is essentially void of trust, and without trust, we’ll find it difficult to move forward.

“So, building that trust while that pressure continues and while the efforts for diplomacy continue is the order of the day. In many ways, the lack of trust is the enemy we now have to defeat.”

Trump has not denuclearized North Korea, or even gotten close. But he’s presented a different US position and in doing so offered a path, however perilous, towards a new future between Washington and Pyongyang.

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