Editorials of The Times

Posted June 12, 2018 11:33 p.m. EDT

A Grand Stage for Trump and Kim

After months of venomous barbs and apocalyptic threats of war, the meeting between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, was unquestionably a relief, with its handshakes and effusive politeness.

Trump deserves credit for setting in motion a process that for the time being will keep the two adversaries talking to each other. But the statement he signed with Kim was strikingly spare, with little evidence of any substantial progress despite Trump’s claim that it was “comprehensive.”

For now, all we know is that Trump has made major concessions, while Kim made fewer commitments than North Korea has made to past administrations and merely reaffirmed a goal of “denuclearization” that North Korea first announced in 1992. For his part, Trump announced he would provide North Korea with security guarantees and suspend joint military exercises with South Korea. As he gushed about the virtues of the North Korean dictator, just a day after he savaged some of America’s closest democratic allies, he even endorsed the North Korean view of such joint exercises as “provocative.”

Yes, the meeting deserves to be described as historic, and the president clearly reveled in the political theater of doing something none of his predecessors did — meeting a North Korean leader and proclaiming a new era between two countries that have been enemies since the Korean War. He also delighted in once again presenting himself as a deal-maker: tackling one of the world’s most intractable security challenges, the threat of North Korea’s arsenal of up to 60 nuclear weapons and the missiles on which to deliver them.

The results of this first meeting fell short of both Trump’s own criteria for a baseline agreement with North Korea and of commitments the North has made in previous agreements with previous administrations.

In the statement, which ran little more than one page, the two leaders aimed to build a “lasting and robust peace” on the Korean Peninsula. The security guarantees that Trump promised to provide North Korea are in response to a long-standing demand from a regime that fears an American invasion, while Kim reaffirmed his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The term “security guarantees” was not explained, but in providing them to allies like South Korea and Japan, the United States has committed to use military force to come to their defense. It seems highly unlikely that would apply in the case of North Korea, and it shouldn’t.

Trump later told a news conference that he still hoped at some point to withdraw the 28,500 American troops from South Korea. He said he intended to halt American war games held routinely with South Korea because they are “expensive” and “provocative.”

But it seems that he failed to forewarn both the Pentagon and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, a grievous mistake, especially with an ally who is directly affected by the decision and played a central role in causing the Kim-Trump meeting to happen. While Moon hailed the meeting’s outcome in general, stunned South Korean officials worried that Trump was making concessions too fast. The South Korean Defense Ministry said it was seeking to clarify the president’s intentions.

In past arms agreements, American governments have routinely insisted that international inspectors be able to rigorously verify compliance. That was certainly the case with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which imposed unprecedented 24/7 monitoring on Iran’s activities and which Trump has reneged upon.

The joint statement with North Korea lacked Trump’s previous mantralike demand that denuclearization not just be complete but also be verifiable and irreversible. It also contained no definition of “denuclearization,” which the United States and North Korea interpret differently.

More specific and powerful language can be found in a now-defunct 2005 agreement in which North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons” and to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Even that language was called weak at the time by many Republicans, and in any case, the North Koreans did not abide by it.

Trump criticized the Iran nuclear deal for addressing only the nuclear threat and ignoring ballistic missiles, Iran’s regional role and human rights abuses. But the North Korea statement ignored similar non-nuclear issues, a startling omission given the North Korean regime’s brutality toward its people, development of ballistic missiles that can hit the United States and history of arms trafficking. The statement also omitted any specific reference to a possible peace treaty ending the Korean War.

During an hourlong news conference in which Trump was unusually friendly toward the reporters he regularly scorns, he dismissed concerns about vagueness and expressed a surprising confidence that despite past North Korean failings, Kim would meet his commitments.

Kim’s wins were obvious. He got what his father and grandfather never did — a meeting with an American president, the legitimacy of being treated as an equal as a nuclear power on the world stage, country flags standing side by side. And while American sanctions remain in place, Trump has delayed imposing new ones and other countries are expected to begin easing theirs.

Trump insisted he secured concessions from Kim, including a nuclear and missile test suspension that is already in its seventh month, and the destruction of a missile test site and an engine test site. The latter two will have to be independently verified. But what about the main goal, denuclearization? “We’re starting that process very quickly — very, very quickly — absolutely,” Trump said.

Trump now fully owns this issue and seems seized with the need to resolve it peacefully. That is to the good. It will now be the difficult work of his negotiators, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to reach a carefully drawn, detailed agreement on the questions that truly matter, including the timing and scope of denuclearization and the future of the missile program.

To the President, Another Tyrant to Admire

As a model for diplomacy, the Singapore Summit had its highs and lows. But as a platform for displaying the singular performance art of President Donald Trump, it was a solid 10.

Trump was on his best behavior, as is so often the case when he is dealing with dictators. Gone was the chest-thumping, insult-hurling ranter who had threatened to light up “Little Rocket Man” with a “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Instead, Trump unleashed his version of a charm offensive on Kim Jong Un.

With the world looking anxiously on, Trump was flattering — gushing even — about his North Korean counterpart. The two leaders were all smiles and friendly pats, and that 13-second handshake, complete with Trump’s Clintonesque elbow grab, seemed to go on forever.

Trump was even more effusive about Kim after their session, sounding more like he was deconstructing a blind date than analyzing a diplomatic meeting.

“We had a great chemistry,” he told journalist Greta Van Susteren. “You understand how I feel about chemistry. It’s very important. I mean, I know people where there is no chemistry. No matter what you do, you just don’t have it. We had it right from the beginning.”

Trump’s chumminess with one of the globe’s most notorious despots would have been noteworthy under any circumstances. It was all the more striking coming on the heels of the president’s slamming Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada — one of America’s closest allies — as “weak,” “meek” and “very dishonest.” But from a Trumpian perspective, the contrast makes perfect sense.

Whatever he does or does not understand about history or policy or statecraft, Trump has a keen sense of how to engage authoritarian thugs who crave respect and legitimacy. It’s how he’s wired. The grand show of respect, the fawning language, the pomp and circumstance — it all melts this president’s butter and inclines him favorably toward his flatterers. He considers himself a strong leader, and such blatant ego-stroking is how he likes to be handled. Why wouldn’t the same hold true for the likes of Kim — or Vladimir Putin?

That said, from all we know of Trump, it is doubtful this display of admiration was purely — or even largely — a matter of diplomatic maneuvering. Trump has a deep and abiding fondness for strongmen. The more ruthlessly they have had to act to hold on to power, the more he respects them. Just look at his response on Tuesday when Hallie Jackson of NBC News asked why, considering all of Kim’s atrocities, Trump was comfortable praising him as “talented.”

“Well, he is very talented,” Trump said. “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it, and run it tough. I don’t say it was nice.”

It’s not that Trump doesn’t grasp the depths of Kim’s butchery — he just thinks such cruelty shouldn’t get in the way of a good deal. As he said in his postgame news conference, the waterfront real estate possibilities are awesome: “They have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean, right? I said, ‘Boy, look at that view.’ And I explained, I said instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world right there.”

Dealing with men like Kim is, on some level, comfortable ground for Trump. Such negotiations are a higher-stakes, global version of the world he came up in, one of cutthroat real estate developers and shady businessmen and mobsters. That is the arena Trump knows, and the one he respects.

The world sneers at strongmen like Kim, Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, regarding them as uncivilized thugs, and Trump feels similarly disrespected. Dispositionally speaking, these are Trump’s people. As such, the president feels more confident and less defensive with these people than he does with leaders with whom, from a geopolitical perspective, he is on more equal footing. This is especially true of Kim, a global pariah from a devastatingly poor and dysfunctional nation to whom Trump can feel superior in every way.

Plus, Trump is way taller than Kim. And for this president, size does matter.

As for why Trump is so committed to tackling the North Korea tangle, there are a couple of key Trumpian impulses at play — beyond whatever concerns the president may have long harbored regarding nuclear proliferation, of course. Most simply, Trump loves a deal. Cutting big deals on his own is what he thought the presidency was going to be all about. The realization that he must contend with the squabbling foot-draggers in Congress has been a constant source of frustration to him on the domestic front. But on foreign policy, he has way more wiggle room to make his mark.

More tempting still, Trump loves big risks and long shots. He sees them as no-lose propositions: If he fails with North Korea, who can fault him, really? After all, it was an impossible mission, at which all his predecessors failed. In discussing his decision to trust Kim, Trump displayed an impressive dose of self-awareness on this point: “I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

But if he somehow can pull off this trick, boy oh boy, won’t everyone be amazed. This is ultimately what makes North Korea so irresistible to Trump. There are indeed lots of bad actors and dangerous regimes and looming threats on the world stage. But which regime is seen as the most unpredictable, the most isolated, the craziest of crazy? If Trump can crack this nut, he’ll surely get the adulation — not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize — that he is so desperate for.

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