The Singapore summit of President Trump and Kim Jong-un projected potent images of peace and diplomacy between two leaders who traded nuclear war threats just a year ago, but the output generated a large wave of initial skepticism that the U.S. side got any tangible or permanent concession from the North Korean dictator on Tuesday.
Foreign policy analysts said North Korea and its closest allies, China and Russia, scored a diplomatic victory in Singapore and that the meeting legitimized Mr. Kim, a human rights abuser with a spot on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Mr. Kim, in the two leaders’ joint statement, committed only to “work toward” the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — a promise Mr. Kim made to South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April. In addition to sitting down with Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump revealed after the meeting broke up that he agreed to freeze U.S.-South Korean military drills, a promise that was bolstered by the president’s unscripted comments on wanting to “bring home” the 32,000 U.S. troops from the peninsula.
Such a development, analysts say, would play directly into China’s hand at a moment when Beijing is expanding its military operations across the region. China had been strongly pushing the “freeze-for-freeze” formula — a halt to North Korean nuclear tests and activities in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises — long before Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump met this week.
Liberal critics quickly claimed Mr. Trump gave away too much too fast without demanding more specific language from Mr. Kim on denuclearization. Language pushed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for a “complete, verified, irreversible” end to the North’s nuclear and missile programs was notably absent from the public accord.
But Michael Pillsbury, the Mandarin-speaking security consultant who worked closely with nearly every U.S. administration since Richard Nixon, took a more optimistic posture, arguing that the focus should be on how the summit represented the start of a potentially game-changing geopolitical shift and an unprecedented U.S.-Chinese policy coordination toward North Korea.
“President Trump has not given much credit to China yet, but I believe he will do so later …,” Mr. Pillsbury said. “China not only provided the Air China aircraft [that delivered Mr. Kim to Singapore], Beijing did not respond to American threats last year to attack the North’s nuclear facilities.”
China had also agreed to the tougher “maximum pressure” sanctions championed by Mr. Trump, he said, suggesting that Beijing even played a critical behind-the-scenes role in orchestrating direct diplomatic engagement between Washington and Pyongyang. What President Trump has done, Mr. Pillsbury said, is accept a “double freeze” that China has promoted over the past year with public and private assertions that “the best deal can only be a freeze on all U.S. military exercises to be synchronized with a freeze on [North Korean] missile and nuclear testing.”
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, who served as a top U.S. negotiator with Pyongyang before the last attempt at diplomacy broke down in 2009, said the current status quo is better than the insult-trading, “fire and fury” rhetoric of last year. “I think we’re in a good place, certainly compared to eight months ago,” he said.
But several conservative analysts offered a harsher take.
“All the initial benefits were pocketed by Pyongyang — and all the initial concessions were offered by Washington,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist and Asia specialist at the American Enterprise Institute.
“America and her allies must now move into damage control and salvage mode.”
Others predicted it will be difficult for the Trump administration to maintain broad U.N. Security Council sanctions pressure on North Korea, with both South Korea and China eager to re-establish economic links with the North currently blocked by international sanctions.
Beijing was already showing signs Tuesday of wanting to walk back U.N. sanctions. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that “China has consistently held that sanctions are not the goal in themselves” and that “the Security Council’s actions should support and conform to the efforts of current diplomatic talks towards denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”
Srinivasan Sitaraman, a political scientist at Clark University in Massachusetts, said the impetus of Chinese support for Washington’s sanctions campaign may already be lost. “I doubt Russia or China will go along with the U.S. to maintain the maximum pressure policy going forward,” he told The Washington Times.
If North Korea did well, China may have done even better from the summit.
“Napoleon had this saying that, ‘When your enemies are making a mistake, get out of their way,’ and I think on a strategic level that’s how Beijing is viewing this,” said Michael J. Green, a Center for Strategic International Studies analyst, who once served as Asian affairs director on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
Republican lawmakers remained wary as well, given that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, committed far more explicitly back in 2005 to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” only to renege on the promise.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, said that while it’s “perfectly reasonable to hope that we are seeing the beginning of a process that will lead to a complete, permanent, verifiable end to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities,” it is “also perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of North Korea’s intentions, given its history of broken agreements.”
“The key going forward will be North Korea’s actions, not their promises,” Mr. Thornberry said. “In the meantime, it is essential to maintain economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, and above all to continue strengthening our military capability to defend ourselves and our allies.”
Patrick Cronin, the top Asia security analyst at the Center for a New American Security, was one of a number of analysts who said it was far too soon to judge the success or failure of the Singapore summit. “The coming few months will give us a better indication as to whether [this] was an expensive photo opportunity or a positive breakthrough,” he said.
“The good news is that longtime adversaries have shown that they can talk, and now the White House has a channel with the top leader in Pyongyang,” Mr. Cronin told The Times. “The bad news is that the hard decisions now need to be made on a relatively tight timeline.”
Mr. Trump emphasized that the summit was only the start of a much deeper process to include specific talks on denuclearization “very, very quickly,” with Mr. Pompeo leading the charge and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton closely involved.
The challenge ahead is likely to center on how patient the two aides, who have both espoused hawkish views toward North Korea in the past, will be if Pyongyang wavers going forward. One source close to the White House who spoke on the condition of anonymity said a battle is already unfolding within the administration over how aggressively to proceed with Mr. Kim.
The fight finds Mr. Bolton, who wants a bare-knuckle posture and short deadlines for the delivery of proof of denuclearization, pitted against acting Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Susan Thornton, who has advocated behind the scenes for a softer and more gradual approach.
If criticism of Mr. Trump’s handling of the Singapore summit mounts during the coming days, said the source, Mr. Bolton and others, including National Security Council Asia Director Matthew Pottinger, are likely to try to “blame the negative optics on Thornton” and push her out of the administration.