If you believe that nuclear disarmament is effectively accomplished with the kind of promo video that the president of the United States apparently showed North Korean leader and despot Kim Jong-un on Monday, I have nothing to teach you. Go cure the common cold.
But if you suspect that the president’s tweet that North Korea’s nuclear weapons — believed to number in the dozens and range far enough to threaten the West Coast of the U.S. plus Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and U.S. allies across Asia (as well as our service members stationed there) — are “no longer a threat” might be, um, premature, then you’ll be wondering what happens next. Here are some things to watch.
What does the formal follow-up process look like? The skimpy communique from the summit commits Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to lead a process with a North Korean official to be named later, at a time and place to be specified. Whether and when the talks happen is one big open question, of course, but there’s also the matter of what would they need to cover to show seriousness.
Here are some items for the short list:
• Kim made a vague commitment to shut down missile test sites — key to Pyongyang not obtaining a reliable weapon that could reach, say, Manhattan. But which ones and how soon?
• Will Kim allow international inspectors to assess the state of the country’s program? Even intelligence agencies are not confident in their assessments of how many weapons and how much material North Korea has produced.
• “Complete denuclearization” means weapons and nuclear material leave the country. Experts who have seen some parts of the North’s program say it would take more than a decade to dismantle the program fully. When does that start, and how is it verified?
• What is the U.S. giving up in exchange? Military exercises can be postponed or cancelled and later reinstated — as has happened on the Korean peninsula numerous times in the past. President Trump seemed to say that U.S. troops would also be removed — something he has personally urged for decades, regardless the state of the threat from Pyongyang. Of course, there are a number of real-life options short of full withdrawal, from scaling back the U.S. presence to making a symbolic removal of a small number of forces or changing how they are deployed. And keep in mind, this president also has a strong record, from Afghanistan to Syria to Africa, of pledging to reduce U.S. military presence and then doing the opposite.
What do our allies do? As those fuzzy maybe-promises about troop withdrawal or cancelled joint exercises emerged from the summit, Japan and South Korea were seemingly left in the dark, somewhere between concerned and frantic. Conservative South Korean activists were up in arms. But in the wake of the Trump-Kim meeting, President Moon Jae-in’s party thundered to a big win in local elections, taking 11 of 12 assembly seats. South Korean politics have long been polarized across a range of issues including the U.S. troop presence and hostile stance toward the North, giving Moon plenty of room from his base to manage the delicate process both of negotiating with Pyongyang and dealing with Trump’s unpredictability.
Japan is another story, however. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visits Trump at the White House Thursday after a rough week in which he participated in the collapsed G7 meeting, heard Trump reaffirm that Japan will be hit with tariffs on its exports to the U.S. and saw Trump seem to promise to reduce the U.S. regional troop presence on which Japan has relied for 70 years. And in case you’re wondering why this matters, Abe and his conservative allies have made it clear that Japan should build up its own muscle and assertiveness in the region — and do it faster if Washington pulls back. From a burden-sharing point of view, that sounds great — but from the point of view of neighbors who still view Japan as a threat, and see those developments sparking an arms race, one that would inevitably turn nuclear, not so much. The beautiful Singaporean island where the summit took place? Locals still remember its history as a prison camp during Japanese occupation, when it earned the nickname “The Island of Death From Behind.”
And What About China? Some commentary in the U.S. has stressed that America will keep sanctions in place to ensure that Kim moves ahead on disarmament. But sanctions depend on China to bite, and Beijing was already letting up the pressure before the summit. But even as China lets economic ties expand, after Kim showed off his moves in Singapore, Chinese leaders will want to remind him who is the senior partner in the two countries’ relationship. Oh, and speaking of economic ties, the end of the summit takes away one item that had seemed to be restraining spiraling economic hostility between Washington and Beijing — leaving China (like Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Japan) free to retaliate for Washington’s tariff hikes by raising the cost of U.S. exports. As that conflict’s effects are felt by consumers in both countries, it’s going to be harder to rally partnership for the challenging disarmament agenda described above.
So Is North Korea Now Off Trump’s Political Agenda? With the president telling his supporters the threat is over, it seems likely that he intends to move the issue to a back burner — or all the way off the stove — and count it as a win in talking points for his candidates for this fall’s midterm elections.
But one constant about Pyongyang over the decades has been its desire not to be ignored — and its willingness to use threats and hostile acts to draw attention when it chooses. Some experts have speculated that Kim might even show up at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this fall. Then lots more Americans will have a chance to do a photo op with a dictator.