From Singapore, skepticism and hope

In a historic and unprecedented meeting, the American leader and North Korean leader set aside their differences and historic enmities to toast the possibility of a better future between their nations. The American proclaimed that “America’s symbol is the eagle, a bird that soars, and Korea’s pride is mountains that scrape the sky. There is no obstacle we cannot overcome if we make the strategic decision to do so together.” Moreover, said the American, this meeting can lead “to more normal and prosperous relations between your government and others in the region and the world.”

As gushing international media broadcast iconic images of their champagne toast, much of the world hoped expectantly for an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and peace on the Korean Peninsula. The American president, for his part, declared in the meeting’s aftermath, “We have some hope of resolving our outstanding differences with North Korea and looking forward to the day when they will truly close the last chapter in the aftermath of the Korean War.”

The date was Oct. 24, 2000, the American leader was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and the North Korean dictator was Kim Jong Il, the father of current dictator Kim Jong Un. In the wake of Albright’s visit to Pyongyang, then-President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems ready for Supreme Court lifeline Arizona bill would allow legislature to overturn election results Manchin and Sinema must help Biden make the Supreme Court look more like America MORE voiced his hope that this diplomatic breakthrough would lead finally to a peace treaty ending the Korean War and ushering in a new era of relations in Northeast Asia.


Of course, it was not to be. North Korea maintained its external deception and internal repression, and continued unabated in its nuclear weapons research until the detonation of its first nuclear device six years later, almost to the day.  

But if the above sounds like an almost verbatim account of President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, it should induce an even higher amount of skepticism than usual. Kim reportedly marveled that Tuesday’s summit resembled “a science fiction movie.” If so, it is a movie that we have all seen before.

Of course, the parallels are not exact. One significant difference between the Singapore summit and Albright’s ill-fated Pyongyang trip is that President Trump made a bigger concession to North Korea than any the Clinton administration made in 2000. In announcing that the United States would stop its regular military exercises with South Korea, Trump gave North Korea a huge gift. The gift was all the more gratuitous considering that Kim did not reciprocate with any corresponding concession such as pulling back North Korea’s thousands of rockets and artillery tubes targeted at Seoul from just across the Demilitarized Zone.  

Trump’s cancellation of the joint U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises symbolizes his disdain for American allies — but it is more than a mere symbol. These exercises serve several tactical and strategic purposes:

First, they equip American and South Korean forces to fight alongside each other. It is hard enough for the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to operate jointly with each other, let alone combine these operations with the comparable services of an allied military. The annual Key Resolve/Foal Eagle and Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises enable the American and Korean militaries to maintain battlespace familiarity with each other, learn to communicate amidst the stress of a hostile environment, and diagnose any operational deficiencies that could be deadly during wartime.  

Second, these exercises serve the diplomatic goal of reassuring South Korea of America’s treaty commitment to defend it from a potential North Korean attack. This is why the South Korean government reacted with surprise and concern to Trump’s announcement — a reaction all the more notable considering that President Moon Jae-in otherwise has been an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s rapprochement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  

Third, the exercises deter Pyongyang from aggression against South Korea. In calling the exercises “war games” and “provocations,” Trump parroted North Korea’s propaganda lines and further undermined their deterrent value.

Fourth, the exercises remind America’s other regional allies of our commitment to their security and to preserving an open and free Indo-Pacific. As our allies and partners such as Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan observe Trump’s gratuitous concessions in Singapore, they will question the United States’ commitment to them, too.  

Fifth, the exercises put China on notice that America remains resolved to counter China’s growing aggression in the region and intentions to evict the United States from the western Pacific. It was no coincidence that Trump’s announcement brought as much joy in Beijing as it did in Pyongyang. As Josh Rogin points out, the biggest winner from the summit may be China.   

In the overall balance of the summit, Kim gained many of his national goals, including de facto recognition as a nuclear power, an easing of sanctions, and a diminished American commitment to South Korea. Trump attained the headlines and optics he desired, but on the substance he got fleeced.

Does this mean the summit was a complete failure for the United States’ interests? Not necessarily. For now, it further lessens the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula, which just a few months ago loomed as a terrifying possibility. The other potential silver lining lies not in the words exchanged between Trump and Kim, but in the images from Singapore broadcast back into North Korea. For the first time in their lives, millions of North Korean citizens saw pictures of what a modern, prosperous, peaceful nation looks like, and perhaps realized that there are possibilities for a better life on this planet than the impoverished prison of a nation they inhabit.  

One can hope that, over time, perhaps the Singapore opening will help inspire the North Korean people to demand more openness and freedom for their country.

William Inboden is associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairsexecutive director of the Clements Center for National Security, and a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, all at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously worked as a policy planning staff member and religious-freedom special adviser in the U.S. Department of State and as senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.