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Kim Jong Un Has Donald Trump Right Where He Wants Him

Newsweek logo Newsweek 13/6/2018 James Faeh
a man that is standing in the grass © Provided by IBT Media

Much of the early analysis of the recently concluded Singapore Summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un characterized the outcome as some version of “TBD,” acknowledging the lack of details in the joint statement but adopting a wait-and-see attitude hoping for signs of positivity in a future ongoing dialogue process.  

That approach is sugarcoating the results of what we’ve learned thus far. We should not delude ourselves venturing down the path of wishful thinking when it comes to Kim Jong Un. Such arguments are diametrically opposed to the facts on the ground, our long history with the North’s empty promises, and our understanding of this president’s transactional approach to foreign policy.

During my time on the Korea desk at the Pentagon during the Obama Administration, the working-level policy grunts had an unofficial saying: no secrets inside the family. In that spirit, here are five unvarnished outcomes from a summit that was all about style over substance, and what we can expect to happen next:

1. Kim is an Undisputed Winner for Now

Sadly, this isn’t really up for debate. Kim appealed to Trump's vanity saying "no other president could have done this" and it worked. On its own, putting the suspension of our defensive joint military exercises on the table in exchange for nothing concrete is a jaw-dropping concession from both a diplomatic and a military readiness perspective. In addition, it seems the Defense Department was not consulted, nor were our South Korean allies. I expect this offer to be walked back in some way in the coming days.

2. Weaker Language on Denuclearization

This joint statement's language on denuclearization is much weaker than the 2005 Six Party Statement and the 1992 Agreed Framework language. Qualifier words in the statement like “work towards” are quite different than “The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons” from 2005. We got nothing new from the Singapore Statement.

3. Cheating is a Winning Strategy That May Be Copied

Kim went from his first ICBM test to a summit win with a sitting U.S. President in less than one year. In poker terms, he was dealt a geopolitical 3 & 7 hand but bluffed his way through until he caught the straight on the river card. That's remarkable. And frightening not just for this summit, but sets a dangerous precedent for other rogue states that may now choose to ignore the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and develop their own weapons as an acceptable risk worth the reward while Trump is in office.

4. From Pariah to Mr. Popular

The domestic propaganda and international legitimacy win for Kim can't be emphasized enough. Many North Koreans will likely view Kim as a hero who stands up to the Imperial Americans on equal terms. Internationally, he's now a member of the big boys club with nukes. This perception will help him in his dealing with the Chinese, the Russians, the Japanese, and everyone else. And it will also make the pressure campaign’s growing list of sanctions that much more difficult to effectively enforce.

5. Still on the Engagement Path vs Threats of War on Twitter

This outcome still keeps us on the diplomatic engagement track, and it's undeniably better than a return to nuclear brinksmanship. You can’t build a skyscraper in a week, and if this is genuinely the beginning of a longer, normal negotiating process, a good outcome could still arise.

However, an excruciating amount of monotonous detailed negotiations must take place between diplomatic, scientific and technical experts on both sides, likely for years, before a complete deal as complicated as the disarmament of North Korea could be reached. That doesn’t sound much like the Trump brand. And it would be an earth-shattering strategic reversal for North Korea to actually give up their nuclear capabilities. But if both sides truly want it, and the leaders provide their blessing to keep aids working in good faith, it could conceivably happen years or perhaps a decade from now.

What Comes Next: It was obviously ludicrous from the start to expect any sort of grand deal in one meeting. Can President Trump keep the process of detailed talks going for the years that will be required to work out the technical elements? Will Kim negotiate in good faith when they can clearly get quite a bit from the president for very little in return?

Talks will continue this year, but I'm not optimistic about our ability to deliver real results based on this summit. A good next step would be to try weaving these talks in with the North and South Inter-Korean talks, with the U.S.-South Korean Alliance on one side of the table and Kim on the other. The symbolism of alliance solidarity is critical.

But more fundamentally, we may be unfit to negotiate effectively on our own.

James Faeh was Country Director at the Pentagon for North and South Korea during the Barack Obama administration.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​

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