On June 12, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a historic agreement. North Korea committed to work with the U.S. to recover and repatriate the remains of U.S. service members killed during the Korean War. In return, the U.S. abandoned its demand that North Korea unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons and its threat to use military force if the North Koreans did not comply. Trump also agreed to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea.
Despite some earlier fits and starts, the North Koreans took what appears to be a major step toward fulfilling their part of the bargain on Friday by turning over 55 boxes of remains, which have been flown to Hawaii for testing and identification. So Trump, Wednesday night, posted this gracious tweet thanking Kim:
Now, it’s possible you may recall the June 12 agreement a bit differently. You may have thought it had something to do with North Korea agreeing to “denuclearize”—to give up its nuclear weapons. While no such commitment was in the actual document the leaders signed, Trump has repeatedly implied that was what the two leaders agreed to. But North Korea is not unilaterally disarming and has bristled at being told it should. While one missile engine test site is apparently being dismantled , U.S. officials have said the North Koreans are continuing to produce nuclear fuel and work on new missiles. Trump has side-stepped this problem by touting the lack of missile tests since the summit, saying that there’s no rush for full denuclearization, and by blaming China.
The return of service members’ remains—assuming these are genuine—is a meaningful accomplishment, particularly for the families involved. And the optimistic reading of recent news is that ongoing dialogue and confidence-building measures like these can reduce risks and lead to more concrete agreements down the road. North Korea was on the path to becoming a nuclear power before Trump came along, and there’s not much he could have done to stop it.
Still, it’s hard not to read Trump’s enthusiastic praise of Kim for this relatively painless concession, while weapons work continues, as an official statement of acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear state.