We aren’t quite sure how we got here. It seemed not too long ago that President Trump was deriding the leader of North Korea as “little rocket man,” warning about “fire and fury” and calling off a planned summit because rhetoric from North Korea had gotten too harsh. Now the world is trying to discern the implications of Trump’s historic meeting with and warm embrace of Kim Jong Un. We welcome the president’s shift to diplomacy and away from reports last year that his administration was drawing up possible war plans.
Any serious attempts to solve the developing nuclear weapons crisis with North Korea – without relying upon our military for what could lead to a bloody, unpredictable war – must be given a chance to develop. That’s where we were several weeks ago. That’s where we remain today.
But a 13-second staged handshake, an agreement extremely light on detail and promises to do more are not enough. Neither should we be distracted by the pageantry of the U.S.-North Korea summit. Those things won’t solve a problem that’s been developing for the past few decades. This isn’t reality TV. The hard work remains. Convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons was already going to be tough, given that those weapons are the reason Kim found himself standing next to the president of the United States in a place of honor and was greeted like a rock star in Singapore despite his horrific human rights record.
When Trump decided to rip up the nuclear pact with Iran – which took years of pressure and delicate negotiations by the Obama administration and several world powers – he gave North Korea a legitimate reason to be skeptical of signing any deal with the United States. Trump’s well-documented short-attention span, penchant to change his mind on a whim and legendary untruthfulness are other significant stumbling blocks. They give North Korea more leverage than it otherwise would have. And the Trump administration has a high bar for success, given that it claimed the nuclear pact with Iran wasn’t good enough, meaning whatever it secures with North Korea presumably would be more comprehensive and have an even better denuclearization verification process.
That’s why it’s far too soon to declare the summit either a success or failure. Trump acknowledged as much when he said he could be proven wrong in six months if North Korea has given up nothing of substance even after Trump legitimized the North Korean regime in ways no other president ever had. Trump also said he wouldn’t admit failure if North Korea decides to keep its nuclear weapons program. He may have been joking about that. But this is no laughing matter.
Trump took a major risk by sitting with Kim Jong Un first and hoping for progress later. Leaders should take risks, and Trump deserves credit for taking this one. But leaders must also get results. So far, we don’t have any. We hope that will change. And soon.