Nearly two years into his presidency and more than six months after his historic summit meeting with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, President Trump finds himself essentially back where he was at the beginning in achieving the ambitious goal of getting Mr. Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.
That was the essential message of Mr. Kim’s annual New Year’s televised speech, where he reiterated that international sanctions must be lifted before North Korea will give up a single weapon, dismantle a single missile site or stop producing nuclear material.
The list of recent North Korean demands was a clear indicator of how the summit meeting in Singapore last June altered the optics of the relationship more than the reality. Those demands were very familiar from past confrontations: that
- all joint military training between the United States and South Korea be stopped, that
- American nuclear and military capability within easy reach of the North be withdrawn, and that
- a peace treaty ending the Korean War be completed.
“It’s fair to say that not much has changed, although we now have more clarity regarding North Korea’s bottom line,’’ Evans J.R. Revere, a veteran American diplomat and former president of the Korea Society, wrote in an email.
“Pyongyang refused to accept the United States’ definition of ‘denuclearization’ in Singapore,’’ he wrote.
To the United States, that means
- the North gives up its entire nuclear arsenal;
in the North’s view, it includes
- a reciprocal pullback of any American ability to threaten it with nuclear weapons. “
The two competing visions of denuclearization have not changed since then.”
Mr. Trump and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who is supposed to turn Mr. Trump’s enthusiasms into diplomatic achievements, dispute such conclusions. They note that the tone of one of the world’s fiercest armed standoffs has improved. It has, and both leaders say they want to meet again.
In a tweet on Tuesday night, Mr. Trump cited Mr. Kim’s offers not to produce or proliferate weapons, without mentioning the many caveats. He went on to say that he looked forward “to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”
He swung to the other extreme, declaring after Singapore that the nuclear threat from the North was over — a statement even his most loyal aides have not repeated — and that he and one of the world’s most notorious dictators “fell in love.”
.. By some measures there has been modest progress. It has been 13 months since the North tested a nuclear weapon or a long-range missile, a change that Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo cite as the first fruits of what some officials now concede will be a long diplomatic push.
.. But Mr. Trump’s strategic goal, from the moment he vowed to “solve” the North Korea problem rather than repeat the mistakes of past presidents, has been to end the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, not suspend it in place.