Laura Rosenberger is director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She was director for China and North Korea at the National Security Council and a member of the “six-party talks” delegation on North Korea’s nuclear program.
The summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore provided the two leaders with the propaganda successes they both craved: Trump can claim that he has done something no previous U.S. president had ever done. And Kim’s effort to cement his legitimacy and present himself as a world leader moved forward fast.
What we did not see amid the pageantry was much meaningful progress on issues. Despite the media hype and theatrics around it, the summit itself was not the goal. The summit was always going to be the first part of an arduous, complicated process — one where leverage is critical to securing the concrete commitments and implementation the United States seeks. Unfortunately, Trump walked out of the summit having already lost almost all of it.
Simply agreeing to the summit was a surrender of one of the United States’ greatest sources of leverage. When Trump walked across the stage to grasp Kim’s hand Tuesday against the backdrop of U.S. and North Korean flags, Kim won a recognition and status that he, his father and his grandfather had long sought. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, the “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at squeezing North Korea’s leadership to compel a decision to denuclearize had already effectively ended, with China and others easing up on the pressure amid the diplomatic mood. After the summit in Singapore, the Chinese government official suggested formally easing U.N. Security Council sanctions. Despite Trump’s rhetoric on maintaining pressure, maximum pressure is not coming back.
Meanwhile, Kim has been treated as a cross of statesman and rock star — with gawking onlookers snapping photos of him as he toured Singapore and Singaporean officials posing for selfies with him out on the town, whitewashing the brutal dictator’s image. Many of those images plastered the front page of North Korea’s party-run newspaper, providing easy propaganda to show internally that Kim has made it on the world stage.
And what did we get in exchange? A vague agreement that includes less favorable language on denuclearization than previous statements had — and no mention of how to verify that North Korea is complying; the resumption of POW/MIA remains recovery, which is an important humanitarian issue but will require working out additional details; and aspirational pledges, echoing previous agreements, on improving bilateral relations, developing a peace regime and providing security assurances. In remarks after the summit, Trump referred to several commitments the text doesn’t include at all, including the closure of a missile test site in North Korea (experts aren’t clear to what this refers) and the ending of “war games” with South Korea (to the surprise of South Korea and the Pentagon, and with an already evolving definition). It seems quite possible that on this or other issues — such as verification, which Trump danced around in his post-summit comments and interviews — Trump and Kim could come away with different understandings of these vague commitments, or Trump’s definitions could evolve, as has happened on other issues. Such a misunderstanding could blow up the talks and put both countries back on the path toward confrontation.
Still, there was one positive outcome: The agreement creates a process to address the complicated substantive issues that Trump and Kim glossed over, which will be led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton with still-to-be-determined North Korean counterparts. Our best hope now is that the real negotiations begin in earnest, albeit with less leverage than U.S. negotiators might like. As I wrote last August, that will require Trump empowering his negotiators, close coordination with our allies and partners and a unified strategy across his administration.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in Trump’s approach to the summit so far that suggests he can stick to such a disciplined process. He agreed to the summit without consulting — or informing — his team. He only belatedly empowered expert negotiators to do the hard work of nailing down the complex substantive questions that would be at stake. And then just before meeting Kim, he undercut those experts, writing on Twitter: “Meetings between staffs and representatives are going well and quickly … but in the end, that doesn’t matter.” Of course not. As he has declared about himself: “I alone can fix it.”
That confidence in himself is not just misguided. Trump’s one-man show does not equal diplomacy, and it puts the United States at a significant disadvantage. Sitting across the table from Trump in Singapore was a highly controlled, prepared interlocutor in Kim. He has a team that has been working these issues, and studying America’s every move, for decades. Kim has been choreographing his diplomatic charm offensive since its launch this year — calling the shots and deciding on the dance moves. And Kim surely has his next steps planned. We can expect him to make more appearance on the world stage: Another meeting with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to debrief him on the discussion is all but assured; Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to meet him; and fellow murderous dictator Bashar Assad of Syria plans to visit. These growing relationships will give North Korea greater leverage at the negotiating table, because it will mean Kim has more allies in the world.
But the U.S. relationship will always remain the crown jewel in Kim’s eye, and Trump must use that remaining leverage of normalization wisely. Protecting U.S. national security and advancing U.S. interests on the Korean Peninsula will require that the United States have its own team lined up both within the government and with our partners and allies to ensure the commitments we get from Kim are real. Otherwise, getting played in this game will mean real damage for U.S. security.