What the president currently has to show for his efforts are the toughest international sanctions ever imposed on North Korea; a nonbinding suspension of North Korean nuclear- and long-range-missile tests; a shattered taboo against American and North Korean leaders meeting; a vague North Korean commitment to denuclearization; a semi-destroyed nuclear-test site; and the return of some American hostages and the remains of U.S. soldiers. The crisis with North Korea is less acute now than it was in 2016 and 2017, but the progress is modest and subject to change at any moment.
The story of how Trump’s North Korea policy collapsed is in part one of Pyongyang’s intransigence, obfuscation, and bad faith in talks about its nuclear program, as well as one in which U.S. and North Korean officials misread one another and at times placed too much stock in the rosy messages of the South Korean government, a key intermediary.
But it’s also a tale about the American president undercutting his own success. Trump prioritized the North Korean threat, amassed unmatched leverage against Pyongyang, and boldly shook up America’s approach to its decades-old adversary. Yet he squandered many of these gains during his first summit with Kim, in Singapore, and set several precedents there that have hobbled nuclear talks ever since. He shifted the paradigm with North Korea in style but not in substance. While transforming the role of the president in negotiations with North Korea, he did not bring the same inventiveness to the negotiations themselves.