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Trump Lowered North Korea Summit Expectations — and Still Might Not Deliver

Trump’s promises often don’t match up with reality. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

With the second U.S.-North Korea summit just hours away, we have some leaked possible outcomes that seem to give Pyongyang some of its key desires while remaining vague on dealing with its nuclear arsenal.

Even before that news, we had a parade of columnists telling us the summit will be a disaster, and others hoping it will be a triumph. That’s no surprise … except that this time, the doomsayers are Never-Trump Republicans and the voices of optimism are progressive Democrats. It seems likely that what happens this week in Vietnam will be enormously important to the prospects for peace on the peninsula — but how this will play out through electoral politics in the U.S., and perhaps also South Korea, won’t be clear for years to come.

The unnerving realities of North Korea — a deadly military; a government that breaks new ground for extreme totalitarianism; a massive, decades-old humanitarian tragedy for which the U.S. shares some of the blame — have been making otherwise intelligent policy professionals propose dumb things for decades. Combine that with the presidency of Donald Trump, and what do you get? Let’s call it Summit Derangement Syndrome.

You yawn and say, that’s just another day in 2019. But what happens in Hanoi — and how U.S. politicians of all stripes react — has the potential to shape U.S.-North Korean relations, and the prospects for peace or war, for years to come.

As President Trump flew off to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam, he predicted that the summit will be “very tremendous,” but said he’s “not in a rush” on denuclearization, adding “as long as there’s no testing, we’re happy.” That’s quite the shift from June, when Trump said after the Singapore summit that Kim is “de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now.” Apparently it’s sunk in that the two leaders won’t be setting any speed records for denuclearization — a process experts who’ve seen North Korean facilities have said could take a decade.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is learning the hard way that, however cleverly you think you’ve positioned yourself around Trump, he will always pull you into the mud with him. Pompeo was forced to humiliate himself utterly in a Sunday interview on CNN, continuing to insist that the president understands that North Korea remains a dangerous nuclear power as host Jake Tapper read him Trump’s tweets to the contrary, including this one from June:

Trump’s North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun, a former Hill staffer and auto lobbyist charged with leading working-level talks with North Korea, has won praise from experts on both sides of the aisle for being thoughtful and honest. Biegun straightforwardly told an audience at Stanford University last month that the U.S. and North Korea have “no detailed definition or shared agreement of what denuclearization entails,” and said that his aim for the summit was “a set of concrete deliverables … a road map of negotiations and declarations going forward, and a shared understanding of the desired outcomes of our joint efforts.”

Biegun’s description of a steady, slow, mutual process flies in the face of Trump’s personalized, big-bang style, which has sought to decouple expectations of summit “success” from actual progress on denuclearization. But it also has earned him off-the-record sniping from voices inside the administration who, like the Never Trumpers outside, want to see only total North Korean denuclearization — or no deal at all.

One might ask how this administration — which is failing embarrassingly to nail down a trade deal with China and shot itself in multiple body parts when Vice-President Mike Pence’s strident speech undermined Pompeo at an anti-Iran conference earlier this month — could ever hope to pull off something as complex as a long-term nuclear process with Pyongyang.

This is where my progressive friends are losing touch with reality, laying out ambitious plans for how the Trump administration could make tangible progress at ratcheting down the nuclear threat while building trust — raising the possibility of whole-of-government approaches, international inspectors, and economic incentives. Sure, that could work in theory, but it’s not very likely. Raising expectations that high won’t just produce disappointment now — it risks discrediting altogether the idea that a competent future administration, of either party, should spend its time on a step-by-step approach that produces some progress without ridding the North completely of nuclear weapons.

The best statement I’ve seen of what a realistic, yet hopeful, outcome of this summit might be came from Rebecca Hersman, a former Defense Department official who has worked on North Korea for decades. We can, she told Vox, “come out of this dialogue with a sense that the environment is safer and that the risk of catastrophic conflict is diminished as we continue to work towards goals of denuclearization.” The outline we’ve seen leaked today might achieve that — but it might not, depending on whether the sides actually do work that increases the stability and transparency of the nuclear standoff, let alone removes any weapons.

The two things Americans should want from this summit are, first, that Trump doesn’t raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula again; and second, that the spectacle of his authoritarian crush makes it clear to Democrats and Republicans that, blame whomever you want, North Korea will be keeping its nuclear weapons even after the romance with Trump is over. The future will be all about learning to live with them and finding ways to increase their transparency, predictability, and safety. That doesn’t seem like so much to ask. But it would, indeed, be “very tremendous.”

Despite Lower Expectations, Trump–Kim Summit May Fall Short