Opinion

Kim Jong-Un Must Be Pretty Happy Right Now

President Donald Trump met with North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un on Tuesday. This historic event ― the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with a North Korean leader ― resulted in the joint statement in which Trump and Kim declared their intention to work toward a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea reaffirming its commitment to the denuclearization there.

The joint statement itself is a list of very basic and aspirational goals, signaling that the the meeting and the agreement merely mark the beginning of long and complicated negotiations between the United States and Kim’s brutal dictatorship.  

Kim emerged from the summit having scored several victories. He had a face-to-face meeting with a sitting U.S. president ― an accomplishment that neither his grandfather or father could achieve. In exchange for repeating the vague commitment to denuclearize the peninsula, he even got Trump to agree to suspend U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which Trump unilaterally declared in his post-summit press conference. With the joint statement under his belt, Kim can now count on China and Russia to argue on his behalf to start easing the economic sanctions that have been placed on his country. Indeed, mere hours after the summit concluded, China began to advocate for easing those sanctions.   

With the joint statement under his belt, Kim can now count on China and Russia to argue on his behalf to start easing economic sanctions on North Korea.

Trump’s scorecard is far more mixed. He is hardly a clear winner; although he insisted that he gave up nothing, it is unclear what concessions Trump extracted from Kim. Moreover, Trump’s zealousness for making a deal likely prevented him from pressing Kim on other issues, such as North Korea’s missile programs and the nation’s appalling and rampant human rights abuses.

Perhaps most importantly, Trump did not succeed in getting Kim to clarify his definition of “denuclearization.” “Denuclearization of North Korea” and “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” mean very different things. The former refers to dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapon capability, while the latter can include the eventual elimination of the U.S. nuclear umbrella on the Korean Peninsula. That could constrain the U.S.’s ability deploy its nuclear-capable military assets such as bombers in the region. By signing onto the joint statement that reaffirms North Korea’s commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Trump may have signed up to a deal that could limit the U.S. military’s ability to operate in Northeast Asia.   

Trump’s unilateral declaration of suspension of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises is also a win for Kim: The dictator was able to seize on Trump’s all-too-apparent desire to make the summit a “great success.” Suspending the “war games” could harm U.S. security interests in the region, which would create tension between the U.S. and its allies. South Korea, for its part, was blindsided by Trump’s concession. Trump defended his decision by emphasizing the high cost of joint military exercises. He argued that it would be “provocative” and “inappropriate” to continue these exercises while the negotiation continues, adding that they can be easily restarted if the talks stall.

‘Denuclearization of North Korea’ and ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ mean very different things.

But the routine joint military exercises are critical to maintaining the ability of the American and South Korean militaries to operate together in case of a contingency. They also demonstrate the continued commitment of the U.S. to defending South Korea, which contributes to effective deterrence in the region.

All of this suggests that a wild-card president ― the last thing you want in the sensitive negotiation ― could have created serious problems, and not only for U.S. negotiators, who will now have to iron out the details with North Korea. Trump also may have endangered U.S. allies in the region, since any attempt by U.S. officials to correct the course he’s set could provide North Korea with a convenient excuse to withdraw from the negotiation process ― and blame the U.S. for the diplomatic collapse.

And of course, Trump being Trump, there’s no guarantee he’ll adhere to the agreements set out in the joint statement, and no assurance he won’t ruin everything with a tweet after seeing coverage he doesn’t like on TV. The best we can say is that this summit did bring the world back from the brink of another war on the Korean Peninsula. Beyond that, the jury is far out on whether a high-risk, high-return gamble by Trump paid off.   

Yuki Tatsumi is the Co-Director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. She was a Research Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Special Assistant for Political Affairs at the Embassy of Japan in Washington.  

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