Why the Singapore summit might be a net plus
Let’s start with the negatives:
1. This was one of the most complete capitulations by US negotiators since the 1973 peace agreement with North Vietnam. For years we’ve been demanding that North Korea de-nuclearize, and this agreement does not achieve that goal. Despite this failure, we gave up some significant concessions, including the meeting itself and also the end to certain training exercises. A hawkish skeptic might argue that this is all a delaying tactic from Kim. Think about the very bellicose language from President Trump after taking office. Perhaps Kim was worried that Trump would do something extreme, and this is a way of buying time. Meanwhile, Trump badly wanted a win, and that limited his ability to negotiate a tough agreement:
People briefed on the meetings said American negotiators had found it difficult to make significant headway with the North Koreans, in part because the White House did not back them up in taking a hard line.
2. Trump’s effusive praise for Kim as an individual was morally offensive and not even necessary. Imagine how Jewish people would feel if he offered similar praise for Hitler.
3. As is often the case, Trump’s comments were full of inaccuracies and hyperbole. Contrary to his claim, other Presidents have negotiated agreements to make the Korean peninsula nuclear free—indeed President Clinton did so in 1994.
So we have negotiated a deal that strongly favors the North Koreans, and followed through with inaccurate and offensive comments. How can there possibly by a bright side to the picture?
1. There weren’t any obvious good alternatives. It wasn’t clear that the US had any practical method of stopping the North from holding on to its nuclear weapons.
2. It’s at least possible that Kim wants to do a major policy change; somewhat analogous to what Deng did in China after Mao died, and yet still hold on to a significant number of nuclear weapons. This kind of move might be easier to do if international tensions are reduced, and this meeting might reduce tensions.
I’d encourage people to look at the picture in a different way:
1. The real issue is not the nukes; it’s the human rights situation in North Korea. In utilitarian terms, nukes are already going off in Korea. The suffering and death in North Korea caused by Kim’s regime is just as horrifying as the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The most important goal should not be de-nuclearization, rather the focus should be on improved conditions in North Korea.
2. Focus on the relationship between North and South Korea, and view the US as a sideshow. If Kim is serious about change, the real action will revolve around his relationship with the South. In the optimistic scenario, this meeting is sort of a way to get the US out of the picture, so that he can move ahead constructively with President Moon. Neither Kim or Moon want bellicose language from the US overshadowing their efforts. In addition, this meeting makes it more likely that Trump will allow Moon to go further in engagement with the North than what might otherwise have been possible.
Thus it’s at least plausible that this agreement is a net plus. But before supporters of Trump get too enthused, the very same logic that suggests this might be a net plus also suggests that Trump’s Iran policy is a huge missed opportunity.
Trump’s policy is probably misguided in either Korea or Iran; I’m just not sure which one. I sometimes think that foreign policy is like the movie industry—“nobody knows anything”. And that includes me.