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Kim looks the winner in round one

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Give Kim Jong Un credit: He got to meet with the President of the United States on an equal footing and, therefore, the prestige that went with it that he clearly sought, and that neither his father nor his grandfather were able to obtain. In addition, the joint communique that the two leaders issued implicitly accepts that America has dropped its long-standing effort to achieve a reunified, democratic Korea. President Trump evidently has no problem with the long-term survival of perhaps the most brutal dictatorship on the face of the earth.

On the other hand, while President Trump should be credited with opening a possible path to peace on the Korean Peninsula and ending the Korean War, both of those outcomes remain far in the future. As Trump himself has acknowledged, more summits are likely to be necessary. Moreover, as he also made clear, much work needs to be done by subordinates on both sides, with the American team led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose efforts certainly ensured that the president, despite his impulsiveness, committed no forced errors.

{mosads}The joint communique is full of commitments. The United States commits to security guarantees; North Korea commits to complete denuclearization. Both sides commit to a new relationship and to a “lasting and stable” peace regime. But these commitments beg a major — indeed, fundamental — question: Under what conditions are they to be fulfilled?


Would Washington issue security guarantees in the absence of ironclad evidence that Pyongyang is doing away with its entire nuclear program? At the same time, would Kim Jong Un do away with his nuclear weapons program even if he received such guarantees? What if America suffers buyer’s remorse and the president (or perhaps the next president) reneges, and Kim finds that he is as vulnerable as was Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whose fate national security adviser John Bolton has made clear he would happily assign to the North Korean leader?

Moreover, it is still not at all clear what China’s role has been in the run-up to the summit. Kim visited Beijing prior to the announcement that he would meet with Trump, and subsequently met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping again before the summit was held in Singapore. What advice, or instructions, did Xi offer to his Korean client? Xi has no interest in a united Korea, which would result in a more powerful, less submissive and perhaps more unruly neighbor than either of the two Koreas. Trump’s effective acceptance of a divided Korea therefore must be pleasing Xi nearly as much as it reassures Kim.

Kim promised to dismantle his nation’s nuclear complex in systematic fashion. Of course, Pyongyang has made such promises in the past, only to break them. In turn, Trump has promised to halt joint military exercises with South Korea’s forces. No previous president has ever issued such a commitment. Moreover, Kim gets what he wants immediately; Trump must wait to see if, when, how, and how quickly the North Koreans terminate their nuclear program.

Kim wants American troops to withdraw from the Korean peninsula; Trump has indicated a readiness to draw down the 27,000 personnel stationed in South Korea and has made it clear that he would prefer to withdraw all troops from that country. If that is the case, it would appear that it would not take much hard bargaining on Kim’s part to accelerate an American troop withdrawal.


Combined with an absence of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and an American guarantee of the Kim regime’s survival, Kim will have obtained all that he has sought while America could never be sure that Pyongyang was pursuing its nuclear weapons program in underground military bases that no inspector would be permitted to enter. Indeed, there would be little standing in the way of a North Korean operation against South Korea should it determine that an attack that debilitates the South is a higher priority than a formal peace treaty with the United States.

President Trump and his media allies have asserted that Kim came to the negotiating table “on his knees” due to the ramping up of sanctions against the North. While there may be some truth to that assertion, it is unlikely to be the entire story; North Koreans are long suffering while the regime, like others of its kind in the past, in all likelihood has hardly been touched by the new sanctions.

The current understanding between Kim and Trump may not be a complete American giveaway either, as some critics are asserting. Yet, as the joint communiqué makes abundantly clear, Trump has yielded far more than he will ever acknowledge. The self-proclaimed master of the art of the deal may have concluded in the first few minutes of his meeting with Kim that the outcome would be successful. What is less obvious is who actually came away with the greater success. On its face, it was not President Trump.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Aftermath of the Korean War Donald Trump Kim Jong Un Korean reunification Mike Pompeo North Korea

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