Saturday, July 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
— Donald Trump, June 13, 2018
“North Korea is upgrading its nuclear research center at a rapid pace, new satellite imagery analysis suggests.”
— The Wall Street Journal, June 27, 2018
As the president prepares, if this time he does prepare, for his second summit, note all that went wrong at the first. If he does as badly in his July 16 meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland as he did with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, the consequences could be catastrophic.
An exceptionally knowledgeable student of North Korea, the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt, writing in National Review (“Kim Wins in Singapore”), says the one-day meeting was for the United States “a World Series of unforced errors.” The result was that North Korea “walked away with a joint communique that read almost as if it had been drafted by the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) ministry of foreign affairs.”
Kim, says Eberstadt, is “the boss of a state-run crime cartel that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry wants to charge with crimes against humanity.” Au contraire, said America’s president, who slathered Kim with praise: Kim, with whom Trump has “a very special bond” is a “talented man” who “loves his country,” which reciprocates with “a great fervor.” Trump called Kim a “very worthy negotiator,” which might actually have made sense if Kim had been forced to negotiate for the concessions that Trump dispensed gratis.
North Korea, Eberstadt says, is committed to what he calls its “racial socialism,” which motivates Kim’s “central and sacred mission,” which is “nonnegotiable” — the unconditional reunification of the Korean Peninsula. This presupposes extermination of the South Korean state, which requires the policy Kim announced last New Year’s Day — to “mass-produce nuclear warheads and missiles and speed up their deployment.”
Eberstadt: “Such a program would not be necessary for regime legitimation, or for international military extortion, or even to ensure the regime’s survival: All of those objectives could surely be satisfied with a limited nuclear force. Why then threaten the U.S. homeland?” America is the guarantor of South Korea’s security, and if Washington can be made to blink at a time and place of Pyongyang’s choosing, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will end, as will the U.S. security presence there. Hence the delusional nature of Trump’s belief: One one-day meeting sufficed to cause the North Korean regime to abandon its raison d’etre.
In addition to the legitimation supplied to Pyongyang by the pageantry of the summit for which Trump obviously hungered, the official record of the Singapore deliberations reveals no U.S. interest in Pyongyang’s atrocious human rights practices (“unparalleled in the modern world,” Eberstadt says) that raise doubts about the fervor with which North Koreans appreciate Dear Leader’s love for them. In return for Trump’s promise to halt military-readiness operations, Kim gave nothing — no inventory of his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, nothing beyond North Korea’s decades-old commitment to “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, an opaque goal that means only that Pyongyang is not clearly committed to anything — beyond a pre-summit promise to decommission a no-longer-useable nuclear test site. The New Year’s Day vow has not been disavowed.
Singapore was, Eberstadt believes, probably the greatest diplomatic coup for North Korea since 1950, and a milestone on “the DPRK’s road to establishing itself as a permanent nuclear power.” And the sanctions that were the Trump administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure” will be difficult to maintain now that a “defanged” — Eberstadt’s description — Trump has declared the nuclear threat banished.
The most dangerous moment of the Trump presidency will arrive when he who is constantly gnawed by insecurities and the fear of not seeming what he is not (“strong”), realizes how weak and childish he seems to all who cast a cool eye on Singapore’s aftermath. The danger is of him lashing out in wounded vanity. Meanwhile, this innocent abroad is strutting toward a meeting with the cold-eyed Russian who is continuing to dismantle Europe’s geographically largest nation, Ukraine. He is likely looking ahead to ratcheting up pressure on one of three small nations — Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, each a member of the NATO alliance that, for the first time in its 69 years, is dealing with a U.S. president who evinces no admiration for what it has accomplished, or any understanding of its revived importance as the hard man in Moscow, who can sniff softness, relishes what Singapore revealed.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.