Against the backdrop of American and North Korean flags, the world finally got a glimpse into the negotiating skills of the so-called “Master of the Deal.” After much fanfare more appropriate for a reality television show than a historic diplomatic summit, the president emerged empty-handed. Trump gave the North Korean dictator everything he’s longed for — international legitimacy, an audience with an American president, and the cancellation of military exercises with our South Korean ally. And President Trump got nothing.
There is great danger in a president more committed to the optics of a getting a deal than the substance within it. Trump’s on-again, off-again agreement to a nuclear summit with Kim Jong Un was a high-risk gambit that squandered valuable leverage and gained no concessions in return. With little preparation and guided by his “feel” that within the first minute he would know if a deal is possible, the president rolled out the red carpet for Kim, ignoring that the devil is in the details.
Kim got the propaganda he needs back home, while concrete commitments from the North Koreans to denuclearize remain elusive. The administration’s oft-repeated language that denuclearization must be “irreversible” and “verifiable” was not even mentioned in the joint statement, nor any reference to North Korea’s egregious human rights violations and Kim’s illegal imprisonment of more than 100,000 people in gulags. And the president’s weakness and naiveté signals to nuclear threshold states that they too should adopt the North Korean model of extreme brutality, threats and endless provocation.
Even more troubling, this summit follows President Trump’s shameful behavior with our closest allies at the G-7 summit. While we repay our allies’ loyalty with misguided tariffs and disrespect, the president is cozying up to one of our greatest foes, cementing the worldview that America is retreating again.
The Korean peninsula is a dangerous global flashpoint and we must remain open to diplomatic engagement with the North, but not at any cost and not without assurances that such an endeavor is guided by steady hands. We can’t have amnesia about the past. North Korea has previously made denuclearization commitments in 1994, 2005, and 2012, only to renege on each in 2002, 2009, and 2012, respectively. But Mr. Trump cares little about substance, history or strategy.
We had a model that worked. In response to illicit Iranian nuclear activities, the international community established a robust sanctions regime that drove Iran to the negotiating table. Before agreeing to formal talks, the United States extracted specific commitments from Iran to freeze portions of its nuclear program. But it was the promise of relaxed sanctions and increased international trade that convinced Iran to reverse its nuclear program and adopt the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with which it is in compliance to this day. Articulating incentives for denuclearization, commensurate with strict and verifiable nuclear dismantlement, should have been be an essential component of any diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
When the president tore up the Iran nuclear agreement, simply because it was signed by his predecessor, he set his own standard for North Korea: absolute denuclearization, absolutely verifiable. Anything less than that is a failure by his own admission. Following the summit, we are not even close to the goal of a denuclearized North Korea.
The consequences of a nuclear North Korea are real and rushing to a bad deal could prove catastrophic on a global scale. The president needs to step back and recognize that substance and details matter. You are negotiating with a manipulative, erratic, and murderous dictator. Proceed with great caution, because this isn’t real estate. You can’t just walk away. Millions of lives hang in the balance if you agree to a deal on Kim Jong Un’s terms.
Connolly is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.