President Donald Trump became the first sitting US president to step foot on North Korean soil. The occasion did not punctuate a deal toward dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. It was not a reward for anything the North has done since the last summit. A communist, racist regime still governs North Korea and brutalizes its own people who are more aptly described as prisoners than citizens.
Even though Kim committed to denuclearizing, every single nuclear weapon and delivery system that was inside North Korea at the time Trump assumed office remains there today. So let’s be perfectly clear about the situation: a brutal dictator who wrongly and bitterly views the United States as the aggressor in the Korean War, which killed 406,000 North Korean soldiers and 600,000 North Korean civilians, and who still views the United States as his enemy, can right now deliver nuclear weapons at American cities, US allies, and US forces.
After the last summit failed to result in a deal, the North Koreans ceased working-level talks with the Americans. Trump stepped onto North Korean soil not to reward the regime but to jump-start those negotiations and find a path that dismantles and removes North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
America’s official objective has not changed: the Trump administration seeks to dismantle and remove every piece of Kim’s weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons and their delivery systems. The sanctions Trump added to the already painful sanctions he inherited from previous presidents remain in place. That is meaningful and contrasts this administration’s approach with its predecessors, which tried to negotiate with the North Koreans by providing sanctions relief before denuclearization.
Under crushing sanctions, and while working-level negotiations were underway, North Korea refrained from testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. The country has, however, since tested shorter-range missiles that still threaten our allies and US forces. Moreover, missile tests are only one way North Korea can improve its missile program. The regime can improve the program and its chances of hitting the United States or our allies by increasing the number of available missiles and warheads. And we should not forget the Kim regime is one of the most active proliferators of missiles and other illicit weapons; what North Korea has, we should expect other nations—including Iran and Syria—to eventually have. Nonetheless, testing missiles and warheads is provocative, and Trump’s approach has in fact stopped such behavior.
But it has come at a cost. When we see those striking images of President Trump standing beside Kim Jong-un, we are not looking at a great American achievement. We are looking at a concession.
By doing nothing but pausing talks, Kim inspired President Trump to go to great lengths to restart them. In doing so, Kim achieved a real and meaningful victory because he can advertise to his people that, despite being an international pariah just last year, he brought about a visit from the most powerful man in the world. The symbolism should not be missed. Trump represents America and all that our “brand” signifies: power, success, and moral authority on matters of just—or at least acceptable—government. His brief visit to North Korea obscures the Kim regime’s evils and glosses over the massive prison camps, the torture, the police state, and even the illicit nuclear missile program. If the leader of the free world willingly goes there, he signals the country must not be that bad or dangerous.
Oh, but North Korea is that bad and dangerous. That’s why the United States must continue demanding that Kim dismantle and remove his nuclear and chemical weapons programs. Loosening sanctions before the regime dismantles its programs would be accepting the regime as a de facto nuclear weapons state, and doing so would incentivize other nations to follow suit.
Instead, Trump is right to maintain sanctions and not waiver on the standard of a complete and verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program. The fact Trump willingly walked away from the last summit without a deal is an encouraging sign he won’t buckle under the pressure to get some kind of deal, even if just a weak one.
In the meantime, Trump will presumably continue his strategy to try to convince Kim that his nuclear weapons do not guarantee his safety, but imperil him. Instead, so goes President Trump’s argument, Kim is safe and no longer needs nuclear weapons to ensure his regime’s safety because the president of the United States not only tolerates him, but likes him, and promises him a wealthy nation if only he will denuclearize. It is an unconventional approach that presupposes Kim cares more about national economic prosperity and the wellbeing of his people than honor based on his bizarre ideology rooted in Korean racial supremacy.
There is not enough time in this presidential term to finish denuclearizing North Korea, even if we started today, but there is plenty of time in Trump’s second term, if there is one. And, it is always possible for Trump to pivot to his approach of the early days of his first term when he presented a credible threat of crushing military preemption to destroy Kim’s nuclear program. If it came to a preemptive attack, nobody could credibly claim Trump did not exhaust every other peaceful option and that Kim forced his hand.
Much remains to be seen. Perhaps Trump could go down in history as the man who successfully denuclearized North Korea by courageously bucking all norms and making every effort short of capitulation to disarm a ruthless regime that threatened the American people. But we have zero indication that will be the end result, and it is too early for any kind of American celebration. Even if one remains hopeful, it is entirely appropriate for Americans to feel discomfort and even disgust at the sight of their president shaking hands with Kim and gracing the soil of one of the evilest and most dangerous regimes in existence today.
Rebeccah L. Heinrichs is a contributing editor at Providence and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she provides research and commentary on a variety of international security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. She is also an adjunct professor at the Institute for the Study of War.
Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump and Republic of South Korea President Moon Jae-in bid farewell to Chairman of the Workers’ Party Kim Jong-un on Sunday, June 30, 2019, at the demarcation line separating North and South Korea at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.