“In Defense of the Trump-Kim Summit”: A Rebuttal

June 18, 2018

Commemorative medallion for the 2018 North Korea–United States summit issued by the White House Communications Agency. CREDIT: White House Communications Agency via Wikipedia

This is in response to Devin Stewart's article, In Defense of the Trump-Kim Summit.

Critique of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore is warranted and necessary. Supporters argue the summit has reduced the chance for war on the Korean Peninsula and established an early framework for the end to hostilities left unresolved since the armistice that quieted the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. While the meeting brought the hermetic North Korean regime out of isolation and into the world, the first face-to-face meeting with a sitting U.S. president only solidified the cult of personality for Kim, and to the same extent, for Trump himself.

Diplomacy is not always pretty and it's certainly never quick. In the fast-paced media age of today, however, the tit-for-tat insults between the "dotard" Trump and "rocket man" Kim seem almost Cold War-esque in their dustiness. Indeed, the world has stepped back from the brink, but how close to the brink did we actually get? As Devin Stewart expressed, Pyongyang views the possession of nuclear weapons as a guarantee of its survival. And he's right, especially if we examine Trump's handshake in Thucydidesian terms. The international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz said that states must oppose those who can't be trusted as nuclear weapons states. Once the unsavory regime achieves nuclear status, he said, however, there's no choice but to accept it

At this stage of nuclear development for Pyongyang, belligerence serves no purpose. It was left to President Trump to take North Korea's hand and usher it into the elite circle of nuclear powers.

Stewart sets up the following points and explains why he disagrees. Here is my take.

"Trump got played."

Yep. The think-on-his-feet president put guts over grilling on the issues at hand. His pledge to limit military drills in exchange for a handshake on a thin agreement was a "tell" of sorts on priorities. Trump, the man, may have indeed got exactly what he wanted: an image that he alone is the prophet of this new political order working to mute the "false song of globalism." Flattered by talk of a Noble Peace Prize and a chance to burnish his personal image, Trump indeed did something no other sitting president has, but it was about optics more than anything.

"Trump gave away all our leverage."

Well, maybe not all of our leverage. The president said he would concede to Pyongyang's aim for an end to war games in the region and save "a tremendous amount of money" in the process. Victor Cha, the North Korean expert and former George W. Bush advisor referenced by Stewart regarding the benefits of diplomacy, said that by committing to a halt in regional military exercises, Trump satisfied the long-term wishes of North Korea and China but got nothing in return. Trump has a penchant for being unpredictable, but it's predictability that builds trust. Without trust, the support for U.S. global efforts will erode. Alienation, as evidenced by recent trade retaliation by China, is not effective policy when trying to deter a nuclear threat.

"There was no mention of CVID."

It's not an agreement unless it can be verified. Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible. Denuclearization is not an idle fancy. The Iranian nuclear agreement includes the most robust verification system in the world, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog group. To be fair, that deal wasn't brokered in a day. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's testy exchange over the issue of the semantics of the U.S.-North Korea statement are telling indications this victory lap is a bit premature.

"We are giving away influence to China."

A Trump administration that places less value on multilateralism leaves the door open for powers like China to fill the void. China is catching up with the U.S. in terms of monetary influence and holds significant leverage over Pyongyang as its largest trading partner. And how quickly we forget that China joined forces with the north during the 1950s war that divided the peninsula. China too wants regional stability and the Singapore summit helped with that. But in terms of influence, it was a ride on Air China that brought Kim to Trump so there may have been little influence for the Trump administration to give away in the first place.

"The summit was an embarrassing spectacle."

For the Trump administration, it kind of was. What was thought to be a propaganda film co-starring none other than Dennis Rodman actually turned out to be a U.S. White House production. When traveling to Pyongyang in 2009 to help negotiate the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, former President Bill Clinton was mindful of what his image would project when seated next to former leader Kim Jong Il. Clinton had to be a blank slate in order to avoid sending any sort of intangible message about the hermit kingdom. If image is everything, does the personal rapport shown between Trump and Kim absolve the latter of despotism or convict the former of appeasement?

"There was no discussion of North Korean human rights."

There was not. What was unthinkable about the summit wasn't so much the thaw, but the adoration for a North Korean leader presiding over a government accused of systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations. Those issues were left off the table. For Kim, his new-found global status only strengthens his "paternal" hold over the North Korean people and, by the admission of the U.S. president, established him as a "very talented" leader. That's backwards.

The joint statement was thin and lacked specifics. Meanwhile, the Stimson Center's 38 North reported two days after the summit that there's little evidence that Kim's regime has yet to fulfill its promises even on military test sites. To Trump's credit, U.S. experience with multilateralism could be taken as a lesson on overextended commitments. It's not that the Singapore summit wasn't significant. It was. The debate should instead seek to ascertain what that significance means beyond the diplomatic show that was June 12.

blog comments powered by Disqus