While the Singapore summit was historic as the first meeting ever between U.S. and North Korean leaders, it failed to produce any headway toward actual denuclearization. Some initially mistook the summit pomp as progress. Indeed, President Donald Trump euphorically proclaimed “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea . . . I have solved that problem.”
Since Singapore, however, hope has given way to skepticism. It became apparent that the United States and North Korea remain far apart even on defining “denuclearization” let alone a process for achieving it. The Singapore summit—and subsequently the Hanoi summit—revealed that Kim Jong-un is no more willing to abandon his country’s arsenal than his father and grandfather were.
The United States had long been criticized for its unwillingness to have a summit meeting until an agreement had first been hammered out by diplomats. But Trump’s nontraditional, top-down approach has been no more effective in curtailing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Greater diplomatic engagement, including at the leader level, may simply have affirmed irreconcilable differences.
Pyongyang has now retreated back into self-imposed isolation, rejecting repeated entreaties by U.S. and South Korean diplomats to resume dialogue. The regime even dismissed efforts by South Korea to provide humanitarian assistance. It’s hard to have dialogue with a nation that doesn’t answer its mail or pick up the phone.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy consists of economic sanctions, military deterrence, and diplomatic isolation. Unfortunately, President Trump has undermined all three components.
Since meeting with Kim Jong-un Trump has impeded U.S. sanctions policy, risked alliance deterrent and defense capabilities by cancelling military exercises, and lavishly praised Kim despite the North Korean leader’s crimes against humanity.
The Trump administration started off strong. In its first eighteen months, it sanctioned more North Korean entities than the Obama administration did in eight years. But like his predecessors, Trump has not fully enforced U.S. laws, including those protecting the U.S. financial system.