Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore has been hailed by Trump supporters as the biggest peace breakthrough since Richard Nixon went to China. But the vague agreement hammered out by the two “statesmen” seems unlikely to fulfill such grandiose expectations.
In 1972, staunchly anti-Communist China-hating President Richard Nixon suddenly jetted to Beijing. Nixon’s meeting with Chinese leader Mao Zedong remade the global geopolitical landscape.
On June 12, 2018, Trump and Kim met in Singapore in the first-ever summit meeting between US and North Korean leaders. The sight of “Dotard and Little Rocket Man” carrying on like old friends, and the agreement that emerged, raised hopes that the Korean War might finally be winding down (that 1950–1953 war, which destroyed millions of lives, has never officially ended).
But the agreement’s real achievement, for both sides, was more prosaic: saving face and buying time. Trump implausibly claimed victory, insisting that the denuclearization agreement — which lacks details and includes no enforcement mechanism — had magically removed the alleged “North Korean nuclear threat” so that Americans could now sleep safe and sound. Kim, for his part, basked in the glow of legitimacy conferred by the dignified meeting with his erstwhile worst enemy… and, we assume, privately gloated at his ability to gain international recognition (which will undoubtedly ease economic pressures on his country) without offering anything beyond the same vague promises that North Korea has made and broken dozens of times before.
On the surface, things appeared to have changed dramatically. Just a few months ago Trump and Kim were exchanging scurrilous insults on Twitter and threatening to incinerate each other’s cities. Then on June 12, the two cartoonish figures were suddenly best friends. If this were a reality TV show — which of course it is, since the guy playing the president of the United States is Donald Trump — the sudden unexpected end of the Trump-Kim feud would be a major plot twist, indeed almost a deus ex machina.
But regardless of superficial appearances, the reality of the US-North Korea standoff has not changed. The US still wishes it could rid the world of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while North Korea (despite its vague promises) has no intention of giving up those weapons. Kim Jong-un is not stupid. He knows that his nuclear weapons are not only his biggest bargaining chip, they are also his best insurance policy against a US invasion or regime change effort. Kim did not need Pompeo’s reminders that the US wants to do to Kim what it did to Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi of Libya.
So in reality, we are back to square one. As ArmsControl.org puts it, “For years, the United States and the international community have tried to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and its export of ballistic missile technology. Those efforts have been replete with periods of crisis, stalemate, and tentative progress towards denuclearization…”
In 1985 North Korea signed the NPT but balked at fulfilling its provisions, citing US nuclear weapons in South Korea. In the early-1990s North and South Korea agreed to denuclearize, but NPT inspectors clashed with the North Korean leadership, and the North pulled out of the NPT and IAEA. Since then the same dance has continued in a seemingly endless cycle, as agreements are made, details argued over, verification procedures stalled, threats issued, new agreements drafted… and the cycle repeats, and repeats.
Meanwhile, with every passing year, North Korea’s nuclear program advances. Today, it represents a formidable deterrent. That is why Kim was willing to blow up his main test facility: that gesture was not a renunciation of nuclear weapons, but rather an announcement that North Korea has arrived as an official nuclear weapons state, possessing an already-sufficient nuclear deterrent, and thus no longer needs to test.
So Trump’s superficial triumph was actually a humiliating surrender. The reality show President, who fancies himself a master of the Art of the Deal, was forced to settle for the illusion of North Korean denuclearization while tacitly accepting the unspeakable reality that North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
At the conclusion of the Singapore summit, Trump announced that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat. Trump’s assertion was a half-truth: North Korea is not, and has never been, a nuclear threat to the United States. Even if its rockets are capable of carrying nuclear warheads to North America, North Korea would obviously never carry out such a strike, given the massive retaliation that would ensue. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are entirely defensive; their purpose is to deter aggression.
The USA, on the other hand, has always intended to strike first with nuclear weapons (as it did against Japan in 1945). The real reason American strategists want to deny North Korea nuclear weapons is to remove an impediment to American aggression. The US Empire endlessly threatens recalcitrant nations, and often carries through on its threats by dropping bombs, assassinating leaders, and orchestrating coups or “regime changes.” Its ultimate threat is its 4,000-bomb nuclear arsenal. But it is much harder to credibly threaten a nation when that nation also possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
So where will the US-North Korea standoff go from here? Given the hawkish nature of Trump’s key advisors Pompeo and Bolton, it is always conceivable that the US is lulling North Korea into a false sense of security in preparation for a decapitation strike. Let us hope and pray that this is not the case, given the possibility that hundreds of thousands if not millions would perish as a result. But more likely, given the political costs of such a strike (and that is all the decision makers care about, they have no compunction about murdering millions absent political cost) we have entered an era in which the US and North Korea will play a long-term game of “let’s pretend”: The US and North Korea will both pretend that North Korea is slowly dismantling its nuclear arsenal. They will pretend not to notice that North Korea has become a permanent nuclear weapons state. And Trump and Kim will, above all, pretend that the new era of seemingly peaceful relations was the product of their own personal genius and stellar leadership (in Kim’s case, there may be some truth to this perception). In this sense, the Singapore summit may turn out to be a triumph of hypocrisy.