Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un both received what they most wanted from their one-day summit in Singapore on Tuesday: Images of the two men shaking hands, talking across the table and getting along famously. Whether this photo-op summitry achieved anything beyond the bonhomie is a lot less clear.
In Mr. Trump’s telling, his willingness to engage in personal diplomacy has persuaded the young Kim to abandon the nuclear-weapons program that he and his forbears have spent decades building. Mr. Trump gave Kim the legitimacy of equal billing on the world stage, but the risk was worth the gamble and has paid off in an historic change of heart.
“Chairman Kim and I just signed a joint statement in which he reaffirmed his ‘unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’” Mr. Trump told the press after the summit. “We also agreed to vigorous negotiations to implement the agreement as soon as possible. And he [Kim] wants to do that. This isn’t the past. This isn’t another administration that never got it started and therefore never got it done.”
In this telling, the two leaders have mapped out a non-nuclear future, Mr. Kim has agreed to a radical change in policy, and all that’s left is for the two sides to work out the details. Peace is at hand.
Yet everything hangs on those details, not on the promises, which North Korea has made and reneged on many times. And there is little in the joint communique or in North Korean statements to demonstrate that Kim has committed to do what Mr. Trump claims.
The communique itself is a terse and general statement promising to “contribute to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula.” In return for Kim’s commitment to denuclearize, the statement says, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees” to the North. There are no details about timing or process or specific goals. Asked at his press conference about the lack of details, Mr. Trump said “we didn’t have time.”
The danger for Mr. Trump is that he is now committed to the same open-ended negotiating process that trapped his predecessors. The President claimed at his press conference that Kim had vowed to dismantle a missile site, but that may be the same site the North is already dismantling.
Asked how the dismantling will be verified, Mr. Trump said “it’s going to be achieved by having a lot of people there, and as we develop a certain trust. And we think we have done that.” But the two sides announced no details on which sites inspectors would be allowed to see or when.
If the past is a guide, all of this will be subject to painful and perhaps endless negotiation, and the North will insist on concessions from the U.S. at every stage. Having committed to talks, Mr. Trump will be under pressure to make more concessions lest Kim walk away.
Mr. Trump made the first large and unilateral concession Tuesday when he cancelled what he called U.S.-South Korean “war games.” The exercises are a North Korean bugbear, and Mr. Trump even adopted the North’s language in calling them “very provocative.” But their vital purpose is to maintain readiness in case of an attack from the North, and his announcement startled U.S. allies. Restarting the exercises is possible, but the price could be an end to the talks.
Mr. Trump said U.S. sanctions will remain in place amid negotiations, but lifting them will be a prime negotiating target for the North. China was quick on Tuesday to call for sanctions relief, and Mr. Trump said Beijing has already eased enforcement “over the last couple of months, but that’s okay.” Okay? Does he want the sanctions in place or not?
Amid all the smiles and handshakes, no one should forget that Kim rules North Korea as a vast penal colony. It is also the regime that kidnapped and killed American Otto Warmbier. Mr. Trump at least acknowledged the Warmbier family, though his surmise that Otto’s death changed the political dynamics in the North seems fanciful.
Perhaps guaranteeing Kim’s survival in power is necessary to eliminate his nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland. But there is no excuse for a nuclear deal that doesn’t entirely eliminate the program—with on-demand inspections everywhere. This is what Mr. Trump is insisting for Iran, and he can’t adopt a lesser standard on North Korea.
Donald Trump’s diplomacy is transactional and personal, so the test of this summit will be whether his gut instinct is right about Kim’s commitments. We hope it is, but we’ll believe it when Americans are packing and hauling away the missiles and enriched uranium.