On the way to Helsinki to meet with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump accused the “fake news” of not talking about the “wonderful facts” of what’s been happening with North Korea. So, let’s talk about them.
Trump writes, “There hasn’t been a missile or rocket fired in 9 months in North Korea, there have been no nuclear tests and we got back our hostages.” Since the president is taking credit for it, it’s worth pointing out that Kim Jong-un announced a halt to nuclear and missile testing last April—in the run-up to his meeting with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, not Trump—saying it was because the country had already developed a sufficient nuclear deterrent. “The nuclear test site has done its job,” he said.
You could argue, as Trump does, that the real reason Kim did this was because of U.S. economic pressure and the threat of military force. But it’s worth pointing out that North Korea tested its “highest ever” ballistic missile, which it claimed demonstrated its ability to strike the continental United States, last November (seven and a half months ago, not nine), which was after Trump’s new sanctions and threats of “fire and fury.”
It’s also defining success down significantly for Trump to demand a pat on the back for the fact that North Korea isn’t testing any new weapons. The entire premise of the Singapore summit was that North Korea would agree to give up the weapons it already has. “Sentence one says ‘a total denuclearization of North Korea,’ ” Trump has said of the agreement he and Kim signed. (It does not say this in the first, nor any, sentence of the agreement.)
On this front, things have not been going well. U.S. officials told NBC in late June that U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea is actually increasing its production of nuclear fuel at several sites. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly made little headway on a trip to North Korea to discuss denuclearization efforts earlier this month, a visit that one source told CNN had gone “as badly as it could have gone.”* Pompeo was denied a meeting with Kim, and the North Koreans accused him of pushing a “gangster-like demand for denuclearization.”
It was clear since long before the summit that North Korea, and its ally, China, have a different definition of “denuclearization” than the U.S. does. While the U.S. imagined North Korea giving up its nukes all at once in exchange for concessions, North Korea wanted a phased “freeze-for-freeze” approach in which it would halt testing in exchange for a halt to U.S. military exercises in the region. Trump, by signing a statement that only committed parties to the vague goal of working “toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and then agreeing to halt U.S.–South Korean military exercises, essentially signed on to freeze-for-freeze, whether or not he knew that was what he was doing. Now, the yawning gap between the two approaches is becoming obvious: North Korea has no intention of actually giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon, if ever, and resents being told to.
Trump has tried a few tactics to address the address the inconvenient fact that his showpiece summit did not accomplish the main thing it was designed to accomplish. Perhaps taking a cue from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who made a similar argument, he has suggested that China is “exerting negative pressure” on North Korea in retaliation from Trump’s trade policies. Whatever role Beijing is playing in Kim’s decision-making it’s a little strange for Trump to be taken aback that China and North Korea are pursuing a policy they have long advocated rather than the one that they didn’t actually agree to in Singapore.
He’s also chosen to focus on the personal relationship, recently tweeting out a “very nice note” he received from Kim as evidence that progress was being made, as if a pro forma letter from the North Korean government was evidence of its good intentions.
But mostly he’s moved the goalposts, focusing on the lack of testing and the return of hostages. He told Sean Hannity on Monday night there was “no rush” with North Korea, a stark contrast to when the country’s nuclear program was described as such an imminent threat it might require a pre-emptive military strike.
In fairness to Trump, there was a sign of progress this week that he didn’t even mention. Stars and Stripes reports Tuesday that, according to a U.S. official, North Korea has agreed to hand over the remains of as many as 55 U.S. troops killed during the 1950–53 Korean War. The agreement came out of a meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials at the DMZ on Monday, but the process has been a rocky one: North Korean officials stood up their American counterparts at a planned meeting last week.
This, along with the hostage returns, would be a real accomplishment and part of a trust-building process that could lead to more progress toward peace. But it does not amount to North Korea being “no longer a nuclear threat,” as Trump claimed on his way back from Singapore. (National security adviser John Bolton said this week that that remark should not have been taken literally.) Imagine, just two months ago, if Trump had promised a deal in which North Korea had returned several prisoners and (possibly) POW remains in return for a high-profile summit that legitimizes the Kim regime, a halt in U.S.–South Korea military exercises, and the de facto acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
On balance, the improvement in U.S.–North Korean relations and lessening of the chance of war is a good thing, but in using this as an example of his diplomatic prowess, Trump is relying on something other than “wonderful facts.”
*Correction, July 17, 2018: This post originally misidentified Mike Pompeo as secretary of defense. He is the secretary of state.