The climactic letdown happened when President Trump met reporters after his Oval Office visit with Kim Yong Chol on Friday. There, he said the June 12 summit was back on and that it would be the start of a process, rather than something that produces a bargain that changes North Korea’s nuclear program and life on the peninsula. In doing so, he gave in to North Korea’s desire for protracted talks.
“I never said it goes in one meeting,” Trump said. “I think it’s going to be a process. But the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.”
He added that there might be other summits in the future. “I told them, ‘I think that you’re going to have, probably, others,’ ” Trump said. “Hey, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we walked out and everything was settled all of a sudden from sitting down for a couple of hours? No, I don’t see that happening. But I see over a period of time.”
So, Trump acknowledged at last what every Korean expert in the U.S., and many elsewhere, has been saying since March 8: that North Korean won’t give up its nuclear weapons all at once. He essentially launched a new diplomatic process, likely similar to the Six-Party talks of 2005-08, though the ultimate shape still isn’t clear. The South Koreans are so eager that they are apparently trying for a seat at the June 12 event. And the South’s defense minister is so conciliatory that he told the Shangri-la gathering in Singapore this weekend that Kim Jong Un just needs to be given a chance.
After that face-palming statement, Josh Stanton summed up the mood of people hoping for real change in North Korea with this tweet:
The triumph of hope over experience always ends in despair. https://t.co/T1JQia4qbC
— Joshua Stanton (@freekorea_us) June 2, 2018
Still, as Victor Cha said in today’s New York Times page 1 takeout, “This is the way it’s supposed to go. The question is: Does Trump understand that this is what has been done in the past — that what he’s doing is not big-bang historic?”
The U.S. has lost a lot of leverage with North Korea, and Trump’s “maximum pressure” play is over. China and South Korea won’t go along as long as a diplomatic avenue is in place. So North Korea has already scored a win and will likely see an easing in the recent sanctions.
But the basic power imbalance remains heavily in the American favor. Trump may put the peace treaty ahead of denuclearization, reversing the order of the agreement made in the Six Party talks. That would give the U.S. even less leverage on the North’s weapons program.
While there will be a lot of theater and big media coverage for the summit, the details are now certain to be left to a diplomatic process that will take months, or years, to play out and will be covered on the inside pages and barely at all on TV. Expect some comparisons to the previous negotiations to surface in the big papers and wires, but only there.
The prospect for conflict and crisis has diminished. But so has the prospect for real change. The danger is the process will become more important than the outcome. There are already plenty of losers in all this. We’ll see if the media pays attention to them in the next week or simply gets caught up in the summit circus.