The Potential and Risk of Trump's North Korea Summit

Every movement of hysteria in our modern media landscape claims it will be recited by our children in the history texts of the future. Unlike most of the breaking news features we see, however, this week’s Summit in Singapore between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un is truly such an event.

This summit, the statement signed at its conclusion, and the positive remarks made by President Trump regarding the meeting itself are encouraging signs. We will not know for some time whether the summit was a success or not, but tangible steps toward peace have been taken.

While this has been compared to the Geneva summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, this is not Geneva, and Kim Jong Un is certainly no Gorbachev. Kim has not shown any real incentive to improve his country’s dreadful human rights situation (which the UN reckons has no parallel in the contemporary world). Any agreement made with a regime that legitimizes concentration camps, the forced starvation of citizens, and the segregation of class along arbitrary lines should be undertaken with caution.

Additionally, a nuclear deal with North Korea will be more difficult than the one negotiated with Iran. North Korea’s nuclear program is far more developed than Iran’s. And while Iran has a substantial (and likely growing) domestic opposition, Kim’s control over North Korea is absolute, making the terms and peculiarities of any agreement more of a challenge.

That being said, the Trump-Kim Summit is an encouraging development. Prior to the summit there were genuine concessions by the North Korean government: a halt to missile tests and the release of the three American citizens held in the country. According to the document signed at the conference Kim Jong Un publicly states that he is committed to denuclearizing his country. Kim’s conferences with South Korean President Moon Jae-In (who has been one of the strongest leaders in this process) have been fruitful as well. Until recently, Kim had never met another head of state. He has now had extensive meetings with several, providing him a tangible benefit to his concessions.

But it must be remembered that North Korea has made similar offers in the past and has promptly violated them. Any final agreement will need a comprehensive inspections regime that must include the United States, our Asian allies, and international organizations.

North Korea, strategically located between three of the world’s most vibrant economies in Japan, China, and South Korea, could see significant progress domestically as a result of a deal. Vietnam, once a rather isolated country, has pursued friendly ties with the West (including its former wartime foe the United States). Vietnam has seen strong economic growth in recent years, and the standard of living for the Vietnamese people has greatly improved. Yet Vietnam continues to be ruled by a Communist government and operates under essentially the same system of government it did before it improved ties with the West.

However, North Korea is far more isolated, far more totalitarian, and far more disdained in the global community than Vietnam ever was, and any possibility that it could successfully undergo a Vietnam-like transformation is very remote and likely impossible. Still, Kim may believe improved ties with the world could create economic benefits at home. His country and his government have been hit hard by sanctions as well as the stern response to its nuclear aggression from China. Though China is often considered an ally of North Korea, Beijing has grown tired of the strife emanating from Pyongyang.

It is far, far too early to tell whether Kim Jong Un is sincere; however, the fact that this meeting took place appears to be a strong sign for President Trump. The amiable nature of the meeting and the seeming progress made on denuclearization is a victory for him, and one that is greatly needed after a rather disastrous G7 summit in which Trump’s disputes over trade damaged relations with some key allies. Trump’s decision to accept Kim’s offer for a summit was an enormous gamble. But if it results in denuclearization it will be a gamble that will have paid off.

On the other hand, the United States and its allies should not be overzealous about reaching an agreement if it gives too much to Pyongyang. North Korea is still ruled by a monstrous regime, and we must be wary of giving them too many concessions. Particularly, the United States should not and must not arrive at terms that will compromise the security of South Korea or Japan. These countries are peaceful democracies and loyal allies of the United States, and it would be a betrayal of American values to abandon our commitments to them.

Further negotiations between diplomats on both sides will continue in the coming months as the countries work towards a deal. We ought to hope they will be successful, as a peaceful denuclearization of North Korea would be a great development for the world. It would remove the world’s most destructive weapon of war from the hands of the world’s most repressive tyrant and allow the coming generation of children in Korea, Japan, and China (as well as Hawaii and Guam) to come of age without the fear of nuclear war. But we ought to also be highly skeptical, for there is much more to be done to achieve this end. It cannot be denied though that the hope of a more peaceful future in East Asia is greater than could’ve been imaged even just one year ago.