There is something to be said for occasionally abandoning protocol, turning a deaf ear to naysayers and plowing ahead with a goal in mind. That was the path for President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday concluded a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that had been canceled just weeks earlier.
The two leaders began the process of establishing relations and taking the first small steps toward what the world can only hope will be productive negotiations to disarm the rogue nation of its nuclear warhead trove. Trump deserves credit for vigorously pursuing those talks. It is always easier to hurl invective at an opponent than to sit down, extend a hand and take the criticism that always accompanies such gestures.
But sheer force of will can take one only so far, and the world has been here before, even if Trump has not. North Korea, under various Kims, has agreed to denuclearization several times. Kim Il Sung acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985 but never complied. The country withdrew in 2003 following U.S. accusations of an illegal uranium-enrichment program. Then came the six-party talks, when the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea used the promise of energy aid and normalized relations to get Kim Jong Il to give up “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” Another agreement, another broken promise.
Now comes Kim Jong Un, who, like his grandfather and father before, appears willing to commit to denuclearization. But it cannot escape notice that in the actual agreement he and Trump signed, Kim gave away nothing. Trump made a notable concession — calling off scheduled military exercises with South Korea and even using North Korea’s favored language, calling the war games “provocative.” He also committed to “provide security guarantees” to North Korea and agreed to work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Notable by its absence from the agreement or talks was any mention of human rights, despite North Korea’s lengthy record of atrocities, not the least of which was the arrest, detention and bizarre death of American college student Otto Warmbier one year ago.
The U.S. cannot be so eager for a quick win that it promises too much or demands too little. At 34, Kim may be one of the world’s youngest leaders, but he has been schooled by the family despots. He has been denigrated by other world leaders, but he and his predecessors have had the patience to build the nuclear arsenal that has gotten him to his goal: recognition on the world stage. He is not to be underestimated.
Trump seems to know that, but his eagerness to curry favor with Kim, praise his talent, declare their “special bond” and proclaim himself “honored” by the visit was unseemly. It stood in stark contrast to the contempt with which he treated longtime and steadfast U.S. allies at last weekend’s G-7 meeting.
It is too soon to declare this venture a success or failure. Trump has set the stage. Now must come the painstaking task of creating a framework, timeline and verification process that will succeed where all others have failed. The prospect of economic revitalization could be the catalyst, but the effort will require a tough-minded diplomacy and persistence that has been in scant evidence the first 500 days of this presidency. Another necessity may be partners, who can help apply pressure and assist in the long-term task of verifying the complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons systems.
Trump obviously relishes the prospect of succeeding where others have fallen short. That’s not a bad quality in a leader. But much more is required for the task he has taken on.