I supported President Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. From my own experience in negotiating with the North Koreans, I know that their leaders believe only they can make consequential decisions for their country. This makes sense since North Korea lacks a free press, an effective legislature, and any sense of ‘we the people.’ Although the United States is a democracy, President Trump has said that he feels that only he makes decisions for our country. I thought, then, that perhaps these two leaders might develop a framework that would authorize negotiating teams to move forward with a plan to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and ballistic missiles in a complete, verifiable and irreversible way.
Instead, the Singapore Summit wasn’t much more than bluster and balloons. It was a celebratory summit where Kim publicly received the respect and recognition he and his predecessors have long sought, and Trump didn’t get much more than a vague promise. Optics were arranged to portray Kim as the equal of an American president. Flags of both countries were hung side by side, photo ops were arranged, and the leaders signed an official statement that was far weaker than at least three previous documents signed on to by North Korea in years past.
Unlike the agreements negotiated in 1992, 1994, and 2005, Monday’s joint statement includes no verification requirements or framework to guide negotiations. To further complicate matters, President Trump announced that the United States would cease joint military exercises with South Korea and indicated that he hopes to withdraw all U.S. troops from the peninsula — removing from the start an important tool in our diplomatic toolbox, in this case deterrence of the North’s large conventional military. To make matters worse, the president used North Korea’s talking points, calling the exercises “war games” and “provocative” when they are defensive in nature. And, apparently, the announcement was made without South Korea’s knowledge.
This announcement underscores the president’s predilection to act bilaterally and on his own without regard to alliances and partners. He appears to have forgotten about our unified command with the Republic of Korea, which serves our security as well as South Korea’s, and he doesn’t’ seem to understand that any potential agreement would only be durable if South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia are on board.
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Kim no doubt returned home to cheering crowds, organized by his government, heralding him as a great leader who successfully made the United States treat North Korea as an equal. President Trump, too, has turned on the media machine, organizing a political campaign-like rally to herald his summit. It would be better for everyone if these leaders and their teams simply got down to work. I hope the much-hyped personal touches of the summit leads to a personal best in peacemaking for each leader and, more importantly, for our countries, our partners and the world. To get there, however, will take more than a vague summit statement. It will take hard work, a robust and capable team, technical detail, patience, and persistence. It will demand verification and monitoring. It will require the engagement of all our allies and partners — along with the U.S. Congress and the American people. The real celebration will be years down the road, if at all. Nonetheless, dialogue and diplomacy are certainly a better path than fire and fury.
Wendy R. Sherman, senior counselor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, was undersecretary of State for political affairs from 2011-15 and led U.S. negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. Her book, Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence, is due in September. Follow her on Twitter: @wendyrsherman.