First, the good news. The fact that President Donald Trump held this meeting with Kim Jong Un is a positive thing, in the sense that it means nuclear war is less likely in the short term.
Many experts were deeply alarmed earlier this year (as was your humble blogger) when Trump rage-tweeted that his “Nuclear Button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim’s. In that context, the summit has to be greeted with hope and relief.
The announcement that came out of the summit was vague. While Trump announced that Kim had “reaffirmed” his commitment to denuclearization, The Post adds this important caveat: “Trump provided few specifics about what steps Kim would take to back up his promise ... and how the United States would verify that North Korea was keeping its pledge ... saying that would be worked out in future talks.”
The deal the two men agreed to, as The Post’s Anne Appelbaum points out, is similar to previous agreements in its vagueness, and those were followed by a North Korea buildup. And Kim arguably got a lot more than the United States did — an end to U.S. war games and a boost in legitimacy — though Trump probably sees this as a boost to his own standing, which is all he really seems to care about.
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But for all this, as long as they are talking, war is less likely. “Any talks, while ongoing, significantly reduce the risk of a nuclear war that could kill millions,” says Max Fisher of the New York Times. “An empty Trump-Kim statement ... is a normal, low-pressure way to keep that process going.”
But here’s a fairly big worry: Trump appears eager to pocket whatever he can call a victory, which raises the possibility that he won’t insist on a robust verification process. In an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulous, Trump said Kim would be making specific denuclearization announcements very quickly:
“’He’s de-nuking, I mean he’s de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now. They’ll be announcing things over the next few days talking about other missile sites because they were, as you know, they were sending out a lot of missiles ... they’re going to be getting rid of sites.’”
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told me that this declaration provides a way to judge whether this process is actually bearing fruit. “The real measure of success in this entire process is whether there is or is not steady progress towards the goal of denuclearization,” Kimball said. “If we don’t see steady progress and demonstrable concrete steps, then we know the promises are not being fulfilled.”
“North Korea has dozens of major nuclear and missile sites - hundreds of buildings,” Kimball said. “They’ve got 10 to 60 nuclear devices. They have a nuclear testing site. They have production reactors. It will take a considerable amount of time, even with the best of cooperation, to disable, dismantle and disassemble that infrastructure. It will require unprecedented monitoring by international inspectors to confirm that it’s happened.”
Kimball said that real progress will require “at some point soon a full and complete declaration by North Korea of its nuclear program,” as well as “agreement with North Korea about who will verify the accuracy and completeness of the declaration, and how.”
Progress, Kimball said, should be monitored by outside organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, or possibly “a multinational team authorized by the United Nations Security Council comprised of experts from China, Russia and the U.S.”
In the interview with Stepanopoulos, Trump noted of Kim that “his country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor.” This was an appalling thing to say, given North Korea’s horrific human rights record, which includes a reign of fear enforced by a police state and the imprisonment without trial of enormous numbers of political prisoners under terrible conditions.
But this provides an important glimpse into Trump’s mind-set here, as the exchange that came just after shows:
“STEPHANOPOULOS: You say his people love him. Just a few months ago you accused him of starving his people. And listen, here’s the rub. Kim is a brutal dictator. He runs a police state, forced starvation, labor camps. He’s assassinated members of his own family. How do you trust a killer like that?
“TRUMP: George, I’m given what I’m given, okay? I mean, this is what we have, and this is where we are, and I can only tell you from my experience, and I met him, I’ve spoken with him, and I’ve met him. . . . he wants to do the right thing.”
I’ve spoken with him, and I’ve met him. Trump appears to have bottomless faith in his instinctual ability to size up the person on the other side of the dealmaking table, and he’s operating from that assumption here as well, as if this is an ordinary real estate transaction.
This week, Politico’s Michael Kruse took a careful look at Trump’s history and found that in many ventures over the years, what has most marked Trump’s attitude is a kind of blithe lack of concern about their consequences beyond how they affect him personally. “What has made him fearless is what has made him careless,” Kruse concluded. “Because he’s never had to pay a lasting price for his mistakes.” This has left Trump with unshakable confidence that he can “spin” pretty much anything, regardless of those consequences, “into a win.”
The big worry now is that Trump will be so eager to pocket signs of progress - victories he can “spin into a win” for himself — that he won’t insist on rigorous verification to ensure the process is actually producing results. “It’s encouraging that Trump and Kim seem to have a good personal rapport,” Kimball told me. “But this is not a real estate deal. We can’t just go on whether Trump feels that Kim wants to deliver.”