The US president’s budding bromance with the North Korean leader has failed to produce concrete steps toward disarmament
It is season two of the Trump show — that is to say, the second half of Donald Trump’s presidency. A second summit has been scheduled to take place next month between the US president and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. As numerous former aides and insiders have told us — including former communications aide Cliff Sims, the author of the soon-to-be published Team of Vipers — Mr Trump sees the White House as the greatest show on earth and is always eager to stage a spectacular.
But the second Trump-Kim summit might not be one of them. Mr Trump’s meeting with Mr Kim in Singapore in June last year made the history books simply because it took place. It was the first-ever face-to-face encounter between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader. The significance of that moment cannot be recaptured — neither by Mr Trump nor any other American president.
A second Trump-Kim summit, then, will be truly noteworthy only if it produces a whole lot more than Kodak moments of a budding bromance. It would have to deliver clear, verifiable and irreversible results. In American terms, success would mean an unambiguous commitment by Pyongyang to give up its arsenal of warheads and missiles and to allow international inspectors into the country to verify progress. At the very least, Mr Kim would need to guarantee a freeze on nuclear fuel and weapons production during negotiations and to permit intrusive inspections to reassure the US he is keeping his word.
There is little reason to expect either of those outcomes. Mr Trump has not set them as pre-conditions for the second summit. And he has agreed to meet Mr Kim a second time, despite the North Korean leader’s failure to take concrete steps toward disarmament in the seven months since the Singapore summit.
Although North Korea didn’t launch missiles or test any nuclear weapons last year, it has done little since the Singapore meeting to suggest any serious intent to disarm. In May, Pyongyang ostentatiously dismantled its well-used Punggye-ri nuclear test site but did not allow international experts to corroborate the effectiveness of that action. Pyongyang has also failed to provide the US with a detailed inventory of nuclear assets, complete with numbers and locations of weapons and nuclear materials that could be used to produce new ones.
More importantly, the very definition of denuclearisation continues to be understood differently by the US and North Korea. The Americans see it as North Korea entirely giving up its nuclear weapons, somewhat like South Africa, the only country in the world to have done so. But Mr Kim sees denuclearisation as a goal for the whole Korean peninsula rather than just his country. What this means is clear. North Korea wants US troops on the peninsula — 28,500 in all — to leave, thereby ending a perceived threat to its very existence. North Korean state media emphasised as much last month, with a call for “the withdrawal of the US troops holding the right to use nukes from South Korea”. Pyongyang’s tone is significant, coming right after Mr Trump started to publicly discuss the prospect of another summit with Mr Kim. At the very least, it suggests a blithe lack of concern for anything Mr Trump might ask.
The situation has fed fear among US experts on North Korea that a second Trump-Kim summit would be meaningless and possibly even dangerous to non-proliferation ambitions. Former US envoy to North Korea Joseph Yun has gone so far to suggest another summit will simply allow the North Koreans to drag out the process and the timeline and establish themselves as a de facto nuclear-armed state. “They want to wait,” Mr Yun said recently, “and have as much time as possible elapse when they don’t do anything significant to denuclearise, and become accepted regionally and globally as a nuclear state.”
Few would dismiss the basic premise of that stark assessment. North Korea, much like Israel, China, India and Pakistan, believes its nuclear capability is both its shield and saviour — and that Mr Kim’s strength lies in the nascent nuclear threat posed by his country.
But that brings us back to a key question. Is a second summit between the US president and North Korea’s leader really necessary?
The only honest answer is “no”. There is a profound risk that Mr Trump, already obsessed with getting South Korea to pay more for the privilege of hosting US troops, could unilaterally and suddenly announce an American withdrawal. That would devalue the only card the US can play in getting North Korea to denuclearise.
But does that even matter anymore when the show must go on?