AS A television spectacle, it was irresistible. The star of “The Apprentice” striding commandingly along the red carpet, reaching out his hand, ready to strike the deal of a lifetime. And grasping it, Kim Jong Un, the leader of the world’s most repressive dictatorship, his Mao suit, hairstyle and grievances imported directly from the 1950s, who just nine months before had promised to “tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire”. In the end, fire did not prove necessary: a suspension of weapons-testing and an invitation to a summit was all it took. President Donald Trump said it was an “honour” to meet Mr Kim, who duly promised “complete denuclearisation” in exchange for security guarantees. It was, Mr Trump said at a press conference, “a very great moment in the history of the world”.
To the extent history is playing any part in all this, it is in its tendency to repeat itself. North Korea has promised disarmament again and again over the past 30 years, only to renege each time after pocketing generous inducements. If the flimsy agreement Messrs Trump and Kim signed in Singapore is to turn out differently, as Mr Trump insists it will, America must be clear-eyed and exacting in the detailed nuclear regime that it negotiates with the North. Alas, so far Mr Trump seems more eager to play the talks for ratings—threatening not only a meaningful deal, but also America’s position in Asia.
One unquestionably good thing did come out of this week’s summit. Talking is much better than the belligerent exchange that went before it (see Briefing). War appears to be off the table, and for that the world can be grateful.
The other good thing is that glimmer of hope. You can never completely dismiss the idea that Mr Kim does mean to change direction. Still in his 30s (like much about him and his country, his exact age is a mystery), he may be daunted by the bleak prospect of a lifetime of nuclear brinkmanship. For his regime to endure, he needs enough wealth to buy conventional weapons and pacify the urban middle class, which in recent years has begun to enjoy some meagre luxuries. He may also be uncomfortable about his country’s reliance on China for everything from oil and remittances to the plane that flew him to Singapore. If Mr Kim sees nuclear weapons partly as bargaining chips, his investment in warheads and the missiles needed to carry them as far as the United States makes this his moment of maximum leverage. Now would be the time to talk.
Mr Trump was right to test this possibility. The potential prize includes not just the step back from war talk, but the removal of a persistent threat to Asia and, lately, the United States. Also, given China’s disputes with America over trade and security, North Korea could become a template for how the two superpowers can work together, to everyone’s benefit.
Measured by such aspirations, however, Singapore was a disappointment. Mr Trump boasts of the tremendous achievement of simply being there; in reality the North wanted talks all along. For Mr Kim, the offer of a meeting as equals with the sitting president of the United States—external validation of his godlike status at home—was an unexpected and long-desired windfall. He could have used the summit as a signal that he means to overturn the North’s record of deceit. But, despite supposedly intense pre-Singapore negotiations, this week’s agreement contains no binding North Korean commitments.
“Complete denuclearisation” sounds good, but the North did not set out a timetable. It may, as in the past, take the term to refer to the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, or even to when America itself disarms, as it is in theory bound to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—which, incidentally, the North has abandoned. Nor did the agreement mention verification. Mr Trump’s team insists this will be intrusive, but Mr Kim’s “proof” of destroying test sites has so far involved letting a few journalists watch at a safe distance. Verification must involve inspectors with the right to visit any of North Korea’s hundreds of facilities, civilian and military, at short notice. Mr Kim’s willingness to accept such a regime is the real test of whether the agreement is serious.
Worryingly, Mr Trump seems determined to be the deal’s salesman. At the press conference, as he gushed about Mr Kim’s qualities, he announced that America was unwisely cancelling military exercises with South Korea while talks with the North were under way. As the South’s partly conscript army needs frequent training to remain battle-ready, that was a big concession for which he appears to have received nothing. Mr Trump says that sanctions on the North will remain until the process of disarmament is irreversible. He also acknowledges that China is already enforcing the sanctions less diligently (it is also arguing for further loosening)—“but that’s OK”. Mr Kim must know that Mr Trump will struggle to get other countries to tighten the screws on the North again. Mr Trump has a lot riding on the North Korean deal, but just as he abandoned a good Iranian nuclear agreement, so must he be willing to abandon a bad North Korean one, or Mr Kim will string him along. That is the test of Mr Trump’s seriousness.
Put the Nobel on hold
America’s Asian allies are rightly worried that Mr Trump will sacrifice their security for the sake of a dead-end deal. He failed to warn South Korea and Japan that he was cancelling the military exercises (using a North Korean phrase, he called them “provocative” war games). He talked about America’s Asian commitments as an expensive burden in the same breath as saying that he wanted to pull his troops home. He raised the fairness of trade, as if security was contingent. Dealing with North Korea is a chance for Mr Trump to strengthen the NPT and pax Americana. He looks more likely to weaken both, risking regional arms races and even war.
Mr Kim has gone from pariah to statesman in six months. His regime’s abhorrent treatment of its own people is largely forgotten. His repeated violations of treaties and UN Security Council resolutions have been partly forgiven. Striking any sort of deal with such a figure is unpleasant. Striking a bad one would be a moral and diplomatic disaster.