Stunning? Historic? Meaningless? These were all words I heard used on various cable news outlets this morning to describe last night’s meeting between President Trump and North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un. John had the live coverage when it kicked off (and there’s a full video there of the signing ceremony if you missed it) but details remained elusive for several hours.
Before getting to what the two leaders signed and what it might portend, I’ll just offer one gut-level reaction. Watching the video of Trump and Kim sitting next to each other and signing an agreement was, in purely visual terms, shocking. It’s really not something I expected to see in my lifetime. Even if Kim fails to live up to his end of the deal and it all falls apart, it was still the most promising hint of progress we’ve seen with North Korea in living memory. So I’ll sign on for “stunning” as an appropriate description. Whether or not it turns out to be “historic” won’t be known for some time to come. As I’ve said here repeatedly, I’ll start trusting Kim Jong-un completely when pigs grow wings.
So what did the two leaders actually wind up agreeing to? NBC News has the details that are known at this point and, if we’re being honest, it’s not much. At least not yet. The four bullet points which were set down on paper are as follows:
- That the US and DPRK work for “peace and prosperity”
- That the nations will work for a “stable peace” on the peninsula.
- To “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
- That “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains including the immediate reparations of those already identified.”
President Trump did an interview with George Stephanopoulos (for some reason) following the summit which you can read a transcript of here. Not much of it is all that quotable in my opinion, though it does cover some of both the cheers and jeers coming from various analysts and pundits.
So here’s the bottom line as I see it. The document they signed is, for the most part, some 10,000-foot level targets that our two nations should work toward, assuming that our diplomats can sit down and hammer out the details in the weeks and months to come. “Stable peace on the peninsula” is an admirable goal and implies the formal end to the Korean war may be at hand. That might actually be the easiest one to achieve because Moon Jae-in is clearly ready to deal if Kim is. They really don’t even need the United States for that one.
The whole “prosperity” for North Korea part isn’t going to come until sanctions turn into aid, and the two leaders made no mention of that. There can’t be any lifting of sanctions until we get the denuclearization part out of the way (or at least off to a solid, verifiable start). I give full credit to President Trump for not giving away the store until Kim shows us some of his cards. If he’s actually ready to invite inspectors in and start tearing down his weapons program, fine. Lift some sanctions.
The only real and immediate result that Kim received was an agreement to end the scheduled war games held by the United States and South Korea. That’s mostly symbolic, but it does give him something to take home and brag about since he usually uses those war games as an excuse to test some new missiles or nukes. What we got in exchange for that was an agreement to return the remains of the Honored Dead from the Korean war for proper internment. That’s extremely important for us as a nation even if it doesn’t really move the needle on any sort of lasting peace. Particularly when you consider that we could restart the war games any time we liked on a few weeks notice, this wasn’t a bad deal.
One of the major criticisms I heard coming from the President’s detractors this morning was the idea that Kim is such an awful, evil despot with a human right record that would make Hermann Göring cringe (all absolutely true, by the way), so how could Trump do any sort of deal with him without addressing Kim’s human rights record. In a perfect world, I would grant that as a fair question. But this situation on the Korean Peninsula has been boiling away like a toxic stew for decades. Just getting Kim to the table was something of a major accomplishment and you don’t lead off that sort of negotiation with a punch to the nose. One price of a lasting peace and denuclearized peninsula may be that Kim gets to stay in power and begin turning his nation into a more humane place without paying any significant, personal price for his past crimes.
Am I happy about that? Nope. But if it buys the world some long-term stability in that region and removes the threat of a preemptive nuclear strike on anyone by the North, well… I might have to live with it.
The best next step they could take, aside from beginning to dismantle Kim’s nukes and ICBMs, would be to open the border between North and South Korea. That will mean asking Kim to end the news blackout his subjects have lived under and it creates a very real risk of dissent in his country. But if we can make that happen it might be the biggest boon imaginable for the people of North Korea.