Donald Trump Delighted Kim Jong Un and China at Summit but Did Little to Remove Nuclear Weapons; the President Broke Diplomatic Norms in Hopes of De-Nuking North Korea. but the Dealmaker-in-Chief Got Little to Nothing in Singapore

By Powell, Bill | Newsweek, June 29, 2018 | Go to article overview

Donald Trump Delighted Kim Jong Un and China at Summit but Did Little to Remove Nuclear Weapons; the President Broke Diplomatic Norms in Hopes of De-Nuking North Korea. but the Dealmaker-in-Chief Got Little to Nothing in Singapore


Powell, Bill, Newsweek


Byline: Bill Powell

For more than six decades, U.S. presidents had a hard and fast rule when it came to North Korea: Don't meet with a dictator. The mere image of the leader of the free world standing with an authoritarian figure would bestow prestige and legitimacy on a rogue state--one that has flouted U.N. sanctions, assassinated political rivals and built a small nuclear arsenal.

Then, on June 12, Donald Trump burned the playbook. With full swagger, the president swept into steamy Singapore, where he sat down with Kim Jong Un in an unprecedented bid to get him to, as he put it, "de-nuke." Afterward, Trump dismissed the idea that his presence alone had given the dictator something precious. "If I have to say I'm sitting on a stage with Chairman Kim, and that's going to get us to save 30 million lives," Trump said, "I'm willing to sit on the stage. I'm willing to travel to Singapore very proudly."

As a candidate and now as president, there is nothing Trump likes more than being disruptive. North Korea, he reasoned, required such an approach. In his view, previous administrations had failed and then left him with a geopolitical mess. Indeed, outgoing President Barack Obama warned Trump that North Korea would be "the most urgent problem" he would face. "Thanks a lot for nothing, chief," is how one National Security Council (NSC) staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly, characterizes the Trump team's reaction.

For nearly a year and a half, Trump blustered and threatened, and, for a moment, he even considered a pre-emptive first strike against the North. But he also got the U.N. to impose the toughest sanctions on the regime to date, and he got China, Pyongyang's economic lifeline, to restrict its own trade with its neighbor. As a result, Trump had apparently captured North Korea's attention in a way Obama never had.

At a meeting in March, Kim told South Korean officials he wanted to meet Trump. "There's no question that the economic pressure had a lot to do with it," says Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think tank. The South Koreans relayed the message, and Trump, defying convention again, instantly accepted. The two sides agreed on a June summit date--hardly enough time, by traditional diplomatic standards, for aides to lay the groundwork for denuclearization talks.

Then came another unexpected round of name-calling, and Trump--to the horror of critics who said he never should have agreed to a meeting in the first place--called the whole thing off. When Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is now Trump's lawyer, said Kim came on his "hands and knees" begging the president to reconsider, he was roundly derided for speaking so bluntly in public. But even the president's national security staffers conceded Giuliani was right. "They wanted this more than we did," says another NSC official not authorized to speak on the record. The president recommitted.

And that is where things went awry. Trump saw the meeting as no big deal, a throwaway concession. In his view, he had Kim where he wanted him: on his heels economically, eager (if not desperate) to talk. The "deal" struck in Singapore would, at minimum, lay out a road map to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization, or CVID, the shorthand that U.S. officials now routinely use. But, in reality, the master of the art of the deal might have gotten played. He gave something to Kim that the North Koreans have wanted for decades--an audience with the American president--and seemed to get little to nothing in return.

After their six-hour meeting, Trump emerged with a bland statement from Kim that simply said North Korea had committed to "work toward" the denuclearization of "the Korean Peninsula. …

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Donald Trump Delighted Kim Jong Un and China at Summit but Did Little to Remove Nuclear Weapons; the President Broke Diplomatic Norms in Hopes of De-Nuking North Korea. but the Dealmaker-in-Chief Got Little to Nothing in Singapore
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