The Trump-Kim Summit: An Assessment

In this Tuesday, June 12, 2018, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
In this Tuesday, June 12, 2018, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The much-heralded Trump-Kim Summit has come and gone. The roughly four-hour meeting has produced thousands of hours of commentary, much of it speculative and ill-informed and of dubious value.

The Trump Administration is insisting that the summit was a major diplomatic triumph and is expressing its displeasure at the failure of the American news media and of the allies of the U.S. to acknowledge that.

Trump's critics, on the other hand, the most recent example being Susan Rice, the former National Security Advisor in the Obama Administration, have claimed that the summit produced nothing of consequence, that Donald Trump was unprepared and that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un won and Trump lost.

The U.S. wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile development program. In particular, it wants Pyongyang to stop the development of nuclear-tipped missiles that have the ability to strike the continental United States.

It also wants to stop North Korea from transferring missile technology, and possibly nuclear weapons technology, to rogue states like Iran. In addition, Washington wants a de-escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula sufficient for the U.S. to reduce its military presence there.

Kim, on the other hand, wants assurances that the U.S. will not attempt to overthrow his regime, either by a military attack or by orchestrating a coup d'état. Pyongyang also wants an end to economic sanctions and a normalization of its relationship with the United States and the rest of the world community.

Ideally, what Kim would like is a complete withdrawal of American forces from the Korean Peninsula and an end to the U.S.-South Korea security agreement. The latter is not on the table and it is very unlikely it will be, but hope springs eternal for North Korea.

The summit between Trump and Kim is a beginning not an end. For better or for worse it still needs to play out to a conclusion. To speak of who 'won' the summit is premature. Both sides got some of what they wanted, but neither side got everything it was looking for.

Here are eight significant takeaways from the Trump-Kim summit and what has transpired since it ended.

1. Negotiations Will Continue

It's not exactly the stuff of a major diplomatic triumph, especially since both sides had already agreed to begin negotiations before the summit occurred. Still, considering that six months ago Kim was threatening to fire what he claimed were nuclear armed missiles at Guam and President Donald Trump was threatening to rain fire and fury on North Korea, an agreement to continue negotiations and possibly expand them to include a permanent peace agreement formally ending the Korean War is a positive outcome.

2. The Language in the Final Communiqué Was That Favored by Pyongyang

In the weeks leading up to the summit, the Trump Administration, particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, kept using the term "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization'' (CVID) to describe the U.S. objective. According to Pompeo, as part of the "denuclearization" of North Korea, its nuclear weapons would be turned over to the U.S. for dismantling and international inspectors would have a free hand to examine any facility, military or civilian, that could be used or had been used for the design, production or storage of atomic weapons or their components. The same standard would apply to facilities involved with North Korea's missile development program

Pyongyang, on the other hand, keeps referring to the "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula." Since the U.S. does not have any nuclear weapons in South Korea (these were removed in the mid-90s by the Clinton Administration), it's unclear exactly what this term means. In the past, Pyongyang has defined that term in several ways, the most expansive being the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea, which is implicit in the U.S.-South Korean security agreement. Previously, North Korea has even suggested that this withdrawal would apply to the U.S.-Japan security agreement as well.

In the week after the Trump-Kim summit, Administration spokespersons, particularly Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo, emphasized that the U.S. objectives had not changed regardless of the language in the final communiqué and that Washington was still looking for CVID as a precondition to ending the economic sanctions or granting any concessions.

Communiqué's often adopt a lowest common denominator of language. The U.S. has made it clear that its objectives have not changed regardless of the language used. The adoption of language on whose meaning there is no agreement, however, raises legitimate questions about Kim's true intentions and whether he is attempting to play the Trump Administration in the same way that his father and grandfather played previous administrations.

For now, the language issue does not mean that the negotiations will ultimately fail or that the Kim regime is disingenuous, but it is a red flag.

3. Negotiations Will Be a Lengthy Process

Although there was no specific length of time cited in the communiqué, the Trump Administration has acknowledged that negotiations will likely take two or three years to complete. That means it's possible that Trump will have finished his first term before the negotiations are concluded. Kim may be betting that Trump will be a one-term president and that his successor may be easier to deal with. He may also be hoping that, anxious to seal what it is already calling a foreign policy success, the Trump Administration may be more flexible in the terms of an agreement in the months leading up to the 2020 elections.

Moreover, even if the Trump Administration gets exactly what it wants from North Korea, the process of denuclearizing North Korea will be a long and complicated one. According to a 2014 RAND Corporation study, there are at least 141 facilities throughout North Korea where work on the development of atomic weaponry is being conducted. One complex, the Yongbyon facility, has at least 663 buildings where work is being carried out. It is likely that there are additional sites, that the U.S. is unaware of, where work on atomic weapons is being carried out.

Ensuring that Pyongyang has met the CVID standard that the Trump Administration has touted will take several years and will likely extend beyond the scope of the Trump presidency even if he were to win a second term.

While it is tempting to see the adoption of a multiyear negotiation timetable as a win for North Korea, the reality is that a rapid, verifiable denuclearization is simply not practical given the scope of North Korea's nuclear program. Nonetheless, a protracted negotiation is in North Korea's favor as it affords Pyongyang more maneuvering room in resolving a final agreement.

4. Economic Sanctions Will Stay for Now

If Kim had hoped to obtain some relaxation of the economic sanctions against his regime as a reward for his good behavior to date, he was sorely disappointed. The final communiqué did not deal with the removal of the economic sanctions.

The Trump Administration continues to insist that the economic sanctions will only be lifted once the denuclearization process has been completed, although President Trump has hinted that there may be other, unspecified concessions that may be granted to Pyongyang as a reward for tangible progress in denuclearizing.

Pyongyang, on the other hand, keeps insisting on a staged denuclearization with economic sanctions being eliminated or relaxed as it meets specific mileposts in the process of giving up its atomic weaponry. Both Moscow and Beijing have publicly supported a staged process rather than the Trump Administration's all or nothing approach.

The key to the economic sanctions remains China. Beijing can permit enough leakage in the sanctions to take the pressure off Pyongyang without formally ending them. It's not clear what the Trump Administration might do should that happen. It may choose to highlight Beijing's role in circumventing the sanctions or, if sufficient progress is being made in the talks, it may choose to quietly accept that concession; effectively agreeing to a staged process without publicly admitting to doing so.

5. North Korea Will Continue to Suspend Its Testing of Atomic Weapons and Its Missile Tests

This was not a specific outcome of the summit as Pyongyang had already announced that it would suspend its atomic weapons and missile testing. In part, this reflects the reality that North Korea's atomic weapons testing facility at Punggye-ri has been irreparably damaged by previous tests and is no longer operable. Several weeks ago, in a staged for media event, North Korea began to dismantle the facility by blowing up some of the tunnels in the complex.

The suspension of the missile program, on the other hand, is an acknowledgement by Kim that further testing and development of an intercontinental range ballistic missile would bring him over the red line that Washington has insisted it will not allow him to cross.

At this point, it appears that Pyongyang does have missiles that at very least could strike the west coast of North America and possible range as far as the east coast of the United States. There are still questions about the reliability and robustness of the reentry vehicles that these missiles would carry, whether Pyongyang has succeeded, their claims notwithstanding, in shrinking a nuclear device so it would fit inside a missile nose cone or the reliability of its guidance systems. The suspension of missile testing does not mean that North Korea cannot continue to work on these programs, only that it will not test them to see how reliable they are.

The one wild card in North Korea's missile program is Iran. It was North Korean missile technology that was the foundation of Tehran's missile development program. There has been close collaboration on missile development between the two countries since then. Iran does not possess missiles with an intercontinental range. There are aspects of Iran's missile program, however, which may have relevance to North Korea's program and that may allow it to continue to fine tune aspects of its missile technology even without conducting additional tests.

6. The U.S. Will Suspend "War Game" Exercises with South Korean Military Forces

Historically, the U.S. and South Korea have conducted war games twice a year under live fire as part of their preparedness training. During the summit, President Trump announced that he was suspending these exercises. Later, Administration spokespeople clarified that the exercises would only be suspended as long as there is tangible progress on the denuclearization talks and that they would be reinstated in the absence of any progress.

President Trump was originally criticized for the suspension and especially for the use of the term "provocative" in describing the military exercises. Both the South Korean government and the U.S. military were caught off guard by the unexpected announcement. His critics saw it as an unnecessary concession to Kim and claimed that Trump had been played by the North Korean leader.

However, President Trump, in defending his move, claimed that the idea to suspend the war games had been his idea and had not come from Kim. Trump argued that the exercises were very expensive and that he considered them a waste of funds.

North Korea has long complained about those exercises and has consistently described them as provocative, a term used also by Beijing and Moscow. The suspension of those exercises can be seen as a concession to Kim or at the very least a quid pro quo for Pyongyang's suspension of its missile and atomic weapons testing. The Pentagon made it clear that joint training exercises with the South Korean military would continue and that only the twice-yearly war games were being suspended.

There is a second aspect to Trump's announcement, however. Washington is conducting two sets of negotiations: one with Pyongyang over its denuclearization and one with Seoul over the financial contribution South Korea makes toward the upkeep of U.S. military forces there. By emphasizing the cost of such military exercises, the Trump Administration was sending a very unsubtle message to the South Korean government that cost factors would affect the extent of the U.S. military deployment in South Korea and the scope of its activities there.

7. Formal Peace Negotiations to End the Korean War Remain on the Table

It was widely anticipated that the summit would produce an agreement to hold formal peace talks to end the Korean War. While the summit document alluded to that, there was no specific timeline offered.

It may be that formal peace talks are one of the concessions that the Trump Administration will offer Kim in return for progress on denuclearization. It may also be possible that the White House wants to keep the focus on denuclearization and may have been concerned that talks to formally end the Korean War would overshadow the negotiations over denuclearization.

8. The U.S. Will Not Pursue Regime Change

During the summit, and in comments that followed it, Trump kept insisting that the U.S. was not looking to depose Kim through a regime change in Pyongyang. It's not clear whether those comments were made in response to specific concerns that Kim articulated, which is possible but unlikely, or whether they were simply President Trump's way of reminding Kim that the failure of meaningful progress on denuclearization would force the U.S. to pursue that option.

The U.S. and North Korea Post Singapore: An Assessment

What has emerged from the Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore is an agreement to continue the negotiations over the denuclearization of North Korea, even though there does not appear to be an agreement on what the term means or what would constitute denuclearization, an acknowledgment that the negotiations would likely span several years, or a commitment that each side would refrain from behavior that the other side considers provocative. That is not the dramatic diplomatic breakthrough that the Trump Administration is heralding, but to be fair it is progress, especially given where the two sides were in January 2018.

For North Korea, the prospect of a U.S. attack has been substantially diminished. It's not clear that a military response to eliminate North Korea's nuclear arsenal was ever a realistic response, but Pyongyang could not afford to call that bluff.

In addition, Kim has obtained assurances that the U.S. will not actively pursue regime change in North Korea as long as progress is being made on North Korea denuclearization. Here again, it is unclear to what extent regime change was ever a viable option for the U.S. It certainly is not an option without Beijing's approval and participation.

From that standpoint, Kim has addressed, for now, his two most pressing concerns. In addition, he has met on the world stage with the President of the United States and dominated international media attention, even if only for a few days, like no other North Korean leader has ever done.

On the other hand, he has failed to have the sanctions removed and the tried and true North Korean gambit of extracting concessions from the United States and its allies as a precondition of even having negotiations may well have run its course. The Trump Administration seems determined that it will not get played in that way as have so many other previous administrations.

What Kim did get, most of all, was time. That outcome was likely inevitable since the rapid denuclearization that the Trump White House originally wanted was simply not workable. Time gives Pyongyang more maneuvering room and, in the short term, will ultimately work to its advantage.

Time may bring regime change in Washington rather than Pyongyang, a factor that may work in Kim's favor, although it is hard to imagine that any American president will stand by and allow North Korea to develop weapons of mass destruction capable to hitting the continental United States.

The sanctions remain the wild card in Kim's calculus. While they have not been eliminated, at least for now there is little risk they will be tightened. The sanctions are undoubtedly adding to the suffering of the North Korean people, but the well being of their fellow citizens has never been a particularly high priority for the Kim family. History has shown that the Kim regime can inflict very high levels of suffering on North Koreans without fear of being deposed.

The sanctions are a problem for North Korea, but one that, for the short term, they can probably weather. Tighter sanctions, especially a cutoff on refined petroleum products, would weigh even heavier and would affect North Korea's war fighting ability. Both China and Russia have continued to supply North Korea with gasoline. For now, though, Pyongyang can muddle through. It's not like Kim and his cohorts are going to bed hungry at night.

The Trump Administration can rightly point to the fact that they have not been played, at least not yet, in the way previous administrations were manipulated. If the White House sticks to its policy of no sanctions relief and no substantive aid until denuclearization is completed or at least well in hand, then it's likely that they will either prove successful or they will quickly return to threatening military action.

The Trump Administration wants to make it clear to Pyongyang that there is no option beyond CVID. It's likely that Kim isn't fully convinced of that and will use the additional time he has gained to see if he can, with Chinese and Russian support, craft another solution; one the West will accept while still allowing him to keep his nuclear and missile arsenal.

For the Trump Administration, the danger is that they are sinking significant political capital in portraying the summit as a major diplomatic success even though its outcome, while positive, fell far short of that. The risk is that, anxious to preserve its diplomatic laurels, the White House may ultimately make concessions that will allow Kim to keep some semblance of his nuclear arsenal. Kim is not doubt counting on that. Whether he will be proven right remains to be seen.

Moreover, by agreeing to a multiyear negotiating process and avoiding, for the moment, coming to a consensus with Pyongyang on what denuclearization will mean, the Trump Administration is embarking on a journey whose sign posts and end point are unclear. Such ambiguity could impose significant strains on America's relationships with its Asian allies, especially if the White House's insistence on putting "America First" is seen as a willingness to sacrifice their security to preserve America's.

The one country who has benefited the most from the Trump-Kim Summit so far is China. A long-protracted negotiation over North Korean denuclearization works to Beijing's advantage. First, an administration has only so much bandwidth. If a significant chunk of that bandwidth is consumed by one issue, it leaves less time and bandwidth for other issues, for example, the U.S. response to Beijing's militarization of the South and East China Seas or the buildup of Chinese military forces in the Indo-Pacific basin.

Moreover, Beijing's key role in enforcing the sanctions gives it a prime spot at the negotiating table. In a long-protracted negotiation, it's unlikely a resolution is possible without China's consent and participation. That alone affords China plenty of chips that it can use to resolve its other disputes with the United States while allowing it to use Pyongyang as a proxy to achieve its own objectives in the Korean peninsula.

Even if North Korea was to successfully denuclearize in accordance with the CVID standard the U.S. is insisting on, it will retain considerable stocks, among the largest in the world, of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, the Kim regime remains one of the most corrupt, exploitive and inhuman governments on the planet.

It is hard to imagine that the Kim regime will willingly give up its nuclear and missile arsenal. The only conditions imaginable under which it would do so, would be the prospect of regime change, either through the military intervention of the U.S., a joint U.S.-China staged coup or a popular uprising that would depose the Kim clan. The latter seems far-fetched, but can't be totally ruled out, especially if Beijing found it in its self-interest to encourage it.

Otherwise, Kim Jong-un has to be convinced that the failure to denuclearize will lead to precisely the regime change he fears. It's likely that Kim is concerned about that possibility, but is not yet convinced of its likelihood or its inevitability if he doesn't denuclearize.

There is a certain disconnect between what the Trump Administration insists it wants from its negotiations with North Korea and what came out of the Trump-Kim Summit. This ambivalence may reflect a fluid negotiating style, precisely the kind that Donald Trump seems to favor, or it may indicate a lack of clarity about how best to proceed.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump often criticized previous administrations for making bad deals, for being predictable and for being inept negotiators. He promised that in a Trump Administration, America would negotiate smart and pointed repeatedly to his own self acclaimed negotiating prowess.

There is something to be said for tactical unpredictability. In business as on the battlefield, tactical unpredictability and improvisation can often be a decided advantage. The problem is that in the short-term, tactical unpredictability and policy incoherence can often look very similar. In the long-term, however, they result in very different outcomes. Time will tell exactly which of those strategies the Trump Administration is pursuing in its negotiations with Kim Jong-un.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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