No deal is better than a bad deal. That mantra has been embraced by Donald Trump’s critics and supporters alike following the implosion of the president’s second summit with North Korean despot Kim Jong-un. This isn’t just an exercise in applying cosmetics to a corpse. For many, this summit’s collapse serves as a source of relief.
If you assumed that the president was so desperate for a deal with Kim that he would sacrifice irreplaceable American leverage in the process, you were pleasantly surprised that Trump’s response to North Korea recalcitrance was to walk away from the table. That is, however, not much of a vote of confidence in the president.
There are no lessons learned, though, when the rewards for failure are equal to those on offer for success. Donald Trump deserves some praise for rebuffing the attempts by his North Korean counterparts to fracture the American delegation, but that is the bare minimum level competence expected of an American president. What’s more, anyone who was skeptical of this process from the start deserves a victory lap. Although Trump declined to allow Kim to lead him down the primrose path indefinitely, the sacrifices he made in the process are real and tangible.
The first of many sacrifices the United States made amid these dead-end negotiations is irreplaceable time. In the period that elapsed between Trump’s first and second summits with Kim, North Korea made no effort even to scale back its nuclear weapons program. Quite the contrary; nuclearization continued contemptuously apace.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea made new fissile material for bombs. Pyongyang expanded existing long-range ballistic-missile bases and built new facilities, even as it made a show of dismantling one missile launching site (a project it never even completed) and decommissioning an already defunct underground testing facility. North Korea has even continued to produce nuclear weapons. Even the president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, confessed as recently as December that Kim had not “lived up to” the administration’s expectations, but it’s hard to abide by commitments you never made.
America’s second sacrifice was the prestige it provided to Kim throughout this charade. Before Trump and Kim’s dance began, North Korea was isolated in East Asia and Kim’s young regime was presumed to be relatively fragile. His grip on power at home was entirely untested. Kim had not even traveled out of the country yet as its leader, a trip that some experts thought could risk inviting a military coup.
Today, Kim has traveled to Beijing twice. He’s met his South Korean counterpart on the Republic of Korea side of the demilitarized zone. He’s been to Singapore and Vietnam, where he was cheered and gawked at like he was a rock star. The North Korean despot plans on making trips to Seoul and Moscow in the coming weeks. His country’s frozen relations in East Asia have thawed, and DPRK’s stalled joint economic projects with South Korea are likely to resume soon. The American president organized a debutante’s ball for North Korea’s reclusive autocrat.
Finally, America lost face in this process by allowing its most prominent representatives to be abused and misled by North Korea’s bad faith actors. The U.S. government has repeatedly requested that North Korea provide its negotiators with a verifiable inventory of its nuclear weapons facilities and capabilities—the meagerest of gestures to demonstrate its goodwill. It has not been forthcoming. In lieu of an inventory, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from an October trip to Pyongyang with a promise that nuclear inspectors would be allowed back in the country. But those inspectors have not yet returned. Last August, the United States received the bodies of approximately 55 servicemen who died in the Korean War (three of whom have been identified), but some 5,300 bodies remain unaccounted for. That repatriation process has stalled over what NBC reports are negotiations about “amounts of compensation to North Korea.”
Over the course of talks in Hanoi, Trump and company reportedly abandoned their demand for North Korea to produce an inventory. Trump wouldn’t even tell reporters that he still insists on North Korea’s “complete, verifiable denuclearization.” And even as Trump walked away from the negotiating table, Pompeo assured reporters that the indefinite moratorium on any joint military exercises on the peninsula between the U.S. and their South Korean allies would remain in place. The administration is reportedly preparing to announce a permanent halt to annual large-scale joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. And for what?
Trump secured a few victories out of this process, notably among them the release of American detainees in North Korean custody. But the United States sacrificed a lot, too, and failed summitry carries with it the increased risk of confrontation and escalation. Trump repeatedly showed North Korea that his commitments on the Korean peninsula are negotiable, and North Korea would be foolish not to test those commitments further.
If it’s now considered a success to spend a year negotiating yourself into an untenable position such that your best option is to walk away from the whole process, the word is meaningless. If there is a silver lining here, it is that this is yet another standard that Trump’s allies will only apply to him.