How Kim Jong-un outsmarted Donald Trump

The Singapore summit was a triumph for the North Korean leader

June 13, 2018
Photo: Li Peng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Photo: Li Peng/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

For a man who has declared bankruptcy for his businesses no fewer than six times, Donald Trump takes inordinate pride in his deal-making skills. He was bragging about those skills again in Singapore as he prepared for an historic sit down with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. A few hours later, after much handholding and mutual flattery, the contents of the declaration the two men had signed were widely hailed by everyone outside Trump’s immediate circle as a victory for Kim. The bankruptcy record began to make sense.

The brief agreement is long on empty promises, however much the president blusters, and seems to contain nothing of benefit to the United States or its allies. In his post-meeting press conference Trump’s announcement that “provocative” US-South Korean military exercises would cease caught both the US military and the South Korean government by surprise. There was less surprise in Beijing, where it had been announced earlier in the day at a foreign ministry briefing.

It was, after all, the Chinese formula of double suspension—of North Korea’s nuclear tests, which North Korea had already announced, in exchange for the joint military exercises. It was first proposed by China’s foreign minister in March 2017, but rejected by Trump himself last November. North Korea’s KCNA news agency framed it as a concession by Trump to Kim’s demands, a rare occasion on which most observers would agree with North Korea’s propaganda ministry.

There is little in the document to show for the concessions, which come on top of the gift of the summit itself, complete with parity of flag display and images of Kim strolling side by side with the US president—all propaganda gold for North Korea. The inclusion in the document of the North Korean formula of “de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”—first launched on 27thApril in the Panmunjom Declaration following Kim’s meeting with the South Korean President Moon—is another important US concession. The Singapore declaration has registered neither tangible advance or timetable, promising only to work towards the goal.

There are well documented precedents President Trump might have wished to study—along with the reasons for their failure. The hard-won deal with Iran, which he repeatedly rubbished and has now wrecked, was, in comparison, a monumental piece of work that covered all points necessary to make it real. He might also have glanced at previous US-North Korea agreements—the 1994 Agreed Framework, for instance, negotiated by the Clinton administration in response to North Korea’s threat to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which North Korea promised to freeze its plutonium weapons programme. George Bush tore that up in 2002, leaving North Korea to re-start its nuclear facilities the following year.

In 2005, North Korea promised to abandon both its weapons and its programmes, after two years of the Six-Party Talks, involving North Korea’s neighbour and the United States. It abandoned that pledge in 2009 when no verification process could be agreed. Even if Kim could persuade his own military that Trump’s security promises are worth the paper they have yet to be written on, a verification regime is likely to prove extremely difficult in a country in which trying to ascertain the true exchange rate can currently be viewed as an act of espionage. There was no mention, either, of continuing security guarantees to South Korea, nor of Japanese abductees, both issues that a previous president might have considered essential to progress.

His nuclear testing complete, Kim launched his diplomatic initiative in January, after a year of provocations and increasing sanctions pressure. He could hardly have imagined that barely five months later, he would have cemented his relationship with China and would be basking in the world’s brightest media spotlight as the US president announced a “special bond”—all without having to make any measurable concessions. He returned to Pyongyang, secure in the knowledge that the severe sanctions regime is effectively dead—neither South Korea nor China will consider continuing them. That leaves Trump a little short of cards to play, should he need to revive the pressure. The US president, who appears to suffer from a severe case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, may not have fully understood that has given away the toolkit.

Kim’s next moves remain a North Korean mystery. He may have decided that the Chinese path to development is attractive after all, as long as he can avoid the political side effects. If that is the path he follows, the future will begin to look rather brighter for the benighted people of North Korea.