“We have developed a very special bond,” President Donald Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the end of the Singapore summit.
The effusive compliments Trump showered on Kim were endless: “He’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, a tough guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people.
“He trusts me and I trust him.”
And thus was born the latest Trump bromance with a foreign strongman he wooed at a summit. First there was Xi Jinping, now Kim, next, probably Vladimir Putin.
In Singapore, summitry made sense if it was meant to halt the rhetorical war between Trump and Kim and to advance the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. But the nauseating flattery Trump lavished on this mass murderer did little to promote those interests. Instead, it displayed how Trump’s eager embrace of dictators plays into their hands.
“A personal relationship can lead to progress in formal negotiations, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner, a former senior intelligence analyst on Korea. Yet Trump’s fervent embrace of Kim became the leitmotif of the summit; the president seemed convinced that it would persuade the despot to “denuclearize.”
How else to explain Trump’s repeated efforts to slough off one of the worst human-rights records on the planet. Kim’s father starved to death over a million people, while Kim executes opponents and maintains gulags containing 120,000 political prisoners. When asked by Fox News about Kim’s human-rights record, Trump answered dismissively: “A lot of people (elsewhere) have done bad things.”
Asked if he had a message for the North Korean people, Trump told Voice of America, “I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well. We had a great chemistry.”
Note how the president segued from whitewashing Kim to bragging about his own personal chemistry. No wonder Trump makes the astonishing claim that he trusts Kim.
Yet the paltry results of the Singapore summit prove such trust is foolish. “Yes, it was historic to have the two of them in a room,” Klingner says. “But this by itself didn’t achieve anything.”
The summit was supposed, at the barest minimum, to produce a joint statement that committed North Korea to get rid of its nukes and long-range missiles -- and to accept verification. Without this, there is no agreed basis for future negotiations.
Instead, the statement used old, boilerplate language -- “commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” -- a phrase that is interpreted entirely differently by Pyongyang and Washington. This means the two sides don’t even have an agreed basis on which to begin talks.
The North Koreans insist the United States must withdraw its troops and nuclear protection from South Korea and Japan before Pyongyang begins to divest its weapons. As for “complete” denuclearization, Klingner says, “They mean they will go down to zero as part of a global arms control regime when the US goes down to zero.”
It gets worse. Kim finagled Trump into accepting a concept that Pyongyang and Beijing have long demanded but US officials firmly rejected only a few months ago. Known as “freeze for freeze,” it requires the US to halt joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for Pyongyang’s freezing missile and nuclear tests. This reduces Seoul’s defensive capacity without reducing North Korea’s arsenal, and without requiring the North to stop its own massive military exercises.
Trump announced in Singapore that he’d freeze the joint exercises, but Kim has made only an informal offer to freeze the tests. South Korea’s leading newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, editorialized, “Kim got everything he wanted.”
“In Singapore we accepted our half of a bad deal with no codification of the North Korean freeze in exchange,” says Klingner, who has watched North Korea renege on several previous deals. “You have to have it on paper; otherwise they will say they are not bound.”
We’ll see where US-North Korean talks go. But Trump’s conviction that he can rely on personal chemistry and Kim’s good intentions is foolish. Despite the presidential tweet that “There is no longer a Nuclear threat from North Korea,” Kim still retains his arsenal. “‘Intentions’ are an intangible,” Klingner says. “North Korea is an unchanged threat.”
That reality isn’t likely to dissuade Trump from believing that summitry with despots will reap huge rewards. He wined and dined Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in hopes that Xi would solve the North Korea conundrum and reduce the trade deficit.
No results yet. The trade gap with China remains unresolved, while Trump has made big trade concessions to Beijing in the vain hope that the Chinese would deliver North Korea. After tightening sanctions on Pyongyang, China has already announced they will loosen them after the Singapore summit.
Kim and Xi can only rejoice that the great American dealmaker is willing to give them so much for free.
Clearly, Putin has paid notice to Trump’s delusions. The Kremlin has made clear its eagerness to accept Trump’s offer of a summit. It’s easy to imagine what concessions Trump could make to Putin without even noticing.
The only leaders Trump appears unwilling to flatter are our longtime democratic allies -- notably Canada, France, Germany, and Britain -- which he treated so shabbily at the G-7 summit in Quebec this month. Who needs allies when Trump is so certain he can win over adversaries by bonding with strongmen?
Any progress with North Korea will require a big dose of realism and a determination to “distrust but verify.” Unlikely, as long as Trump keeps fooling himself and his base.
Trudy Rubin is the foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)