Did Trump do an about face on North Korea? Not really

I came back from a short day-trip to flip on the news and see the announcement that President Trump had reversed course on our dealings with North Korea’s dictator. According to the report, Trump was now calling Kim Jong-un an “extraordinary threat” to our national security. That would be a disappointment to be sure, though perhaps better than cutting a deal only to have Kim stab us in the back. But was there really any change in Donald Trump’s relationship with Kim? The BBC hints at such a story, but the details don’t seem to back it up.

President Trump extended the national emergency on Friday due to “the existence and risk of proliferation of weapons-usable fissile material on the Korean Peninsula and the actions and policies of the Government of North Korea”.

These “continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States”, he said in a notice to Congress.

Democrats say the latest White House language contradicts the president’s earlier boasts about the success of the Singapore summit. In another tweet on 13 June, he said Americans could “sleep well tonight!”.

I see that Chuck Schumer immediately rushed to the nearest reporter’s microphone to declare that, “the report of President Trump’s own administration completely undercuts his statements over the last few weeks.” But you don’t have to read much further into the facts of what really happened to see the reality. We’ve had a “state of national emergency” regarding North Korea for a decade, primarily in response to their advancements in nuclear weapons and missile technology. Keeping that in place allows certain options and flexibility for the White House in case things go seriously pear-shaped overnight at some point.

So Trump didn’t create the state of emergency. He just extended it, just as it’s been routinely extended in the past. And why not? Nothing has changed on that front yet. Yes, both sides have given a few things as goodwill gestures thus far (suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, the return of remains of the Honored Dead to the United States), but the existential threat of Kim’s nuclear weapons still exists.

And really, that’s what the White House position has been since the Singapore meeting was first announced. We aren’t adding new sanctions, but all of the existing ones are staying in place. The state of emergency was in place before and it will remain in place until significant and lasting changes take place. (Assuming they actually do, of course.) This was the position Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated just this week. Pretty much everything is on hold until diplomats from the two sides can hammer out the details of something that both of us might sign onto. In the meantime, Trump continues to toss some roses toward Kim as a way of keeping him at the table while the negotiations play out. (Kim may have said that Trump promised to lift sanctions, but that was probably some propaganda for domestic consumption.)

So I’m not too concerned about Trump extending the state of emergency. Far more concerning to me, as I wrote earlier this week, is Kim’s recent meeting with China. The threat of talks with the United States breaking down isn’t nearly as dangerous as the threat of North Korea’s relations with China being restored to the point where they preemptively end their participation in most of the sanctions. If that happens, Kim has little or no incentive to give up his weapons in his lifetime or deal in good faith with us.

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David Strom 8:31 AM on October 05, 2022