Michael KreponThe Un-Scorecard for the Trump-Kim Encounter

Quote of the week:

“In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.” — Xun Zuang

The Punditariat will speak about winners and losers at the Singapore summit. There will also be endless exegesis of the joint communiqué and Trump’s offerings, especially the cessation of joint US-ROK exercises. My advice, freely given, is to be wary of scorecard commentary. This roller coaster ride will have many twists and turns ahead. How could it be otherwise with Trump and Kim Jong-un?

Rip up your scorecard. Instead, I suggest focusing on the big picture: Is another war on the Korean peninsula more or less likely? Have nuclear dangers grown or receded – at least for now? After the Singapore summit, it’s fair to surmise that the likelihood of a second Korean War has been greatly reduced, a war that could well result in the first mushroom clouds on a battlefield since 1945.

This is a significant gain and a marked change from the bellicose threats of the past year. Yes, Trump makes a hash of alliance ties, but in doing so he has created enough space for allies as well as competitors to improve ties with Pyongyang even if Trump or Kim does a U-turn down the road. “Maximum pressure” is in the rear-view mirror. North Korea has now become the destination of choice for Chinese and Russian diplomats. The South Korean President has tiptoed across the Panmunjom demarcation line, and deeper forays may be in store.

Is this good or bad for “denuclearization?” It depends on how realistic this goal is. The critiques of those who believe this is an unrealistic goal ring hollow — because even a perfectly executed game plan would fall short of this objective. No state has “denuclearized” since the 1990s, and I’d be surprised and grateful if Kim joined this club. Absent denuclearization, Kim can still relieve pressures and reduce nuclear dangers by not testing nuclear devices and flight-testing missiles. Consider this “virtual” denuclearization, since the longer nuclear-armed states refrain from nuclear testing and missile flight testing, the more the shadow cast by these weapons recedes. Is this a realistic goal? We shall see. These dynamics might already be underway thanks to the flurry of diplomacy set in motion by Trump’s instinctive decision to meet with Kim and the optics of the Singapore summit.



  1. robgoldston (History)

    I am sure you were just using short-hand, but Hiroshima & Nagasaki were not battlefields. They were cities with many, many civilians, Whom we killed. We should never forget that.

    To your point, we could have achieved the present freeze for freeze deal in early 2017, when China proposed it & SK floated it as a balloon. We could have started a dialog when NK had tested neither thermonuclear weapons nor ICBMs.

    When someone pushes you at the brink of a cliff and then casually pulls you back, it is time to find a new hiking companion.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    A lot of the pundit critique of the summit is the same superficial stuff we seem to get regardless of the issue. “Why is he talking to such a nasty man?” is a common one. A really popular form of “analysis” is to look at the original promise made and then see if it corresponds to the result achieved. This seems to assume that presidents have total power over outcomes, but the real problem–especially in the age of Trump–is that the pundits rarely bother to examine whether the original promise was perhaps counterproductive, self-defeating, or just downright absurd. Thus people go on and on about how Trump didn’t get CVID in his first meeting with Kim, as if that was ever going to happen.

    I think it’s more disturbing that the administration appears to have no real concept of negotiation, strategy, or the technology involved. They don’t actually know what they want to achieve, apart from a few bumper-sticker slogans. Moreover they don’t appear to understand the significance of what they have achieved (or have failed to achieve) in this particular meeting. Indeed, it’s not even clear that they know with any certainty the content of what was agreed to. (I have this sneaking suspicion that if Trump “explained” something to Kim, he thinks Kim agreed to it, but we’ll never really know even what was said during much of this summit.)

  3. Glo (History)

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “There is great meaning in Chairman Kim’s clearly confirming to President Trump the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
    Okay. Like what?
    “Abe also said that resolving the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea would require the strong support of the United States.” [Reuters]
    No pressure.
    ‘Nuclear-free peninsula’ = just weapons, right, not nuclear energy?
    Waiting to hear how China and South Korea feel about stuff…

    Former Ukraine president Leonid Kravchuk on transferring Ukraine nuclear weapons to Russia: “I feel cheated and offended. We set an example. I was proud of it. I thought that everyone thinks alike. It turns out [the negotiators] all understood it only up to [the] point when they left the building. All was forgotten once the doors shut behind them.”

    • M B (History)

      Nukes = Power

  4. Sorry No (History)

    Trump escalated war rhetoric and, at least for now, walked it back. He doesn’t get any credit for raising and lowering the temperature. NKorea knew perfectly well that the US had several options at it’s disposal. We didn’t need a bombastic loud mouth to utter them publicly and raise the temperature.

    Pray tell me, how are we better off now than we were in Jan 2017? We are worse off because Trump normalized a brutal dictator and made it much easier for his brutal regime to get a breath of fresh air, and possibly an economic lifeline, from the world.

    This is worse than mere political theater. NKorea acquired ballistic missiles under Trump’s watch and he rewarded them with recognition and glory.

  5. Gregory Matteson (History)

    Much as I abhor President Trump. I see a glimmer of light in the summit. For the last 68 years and counting U.S. Korea policy has counted ROK as the sole legitimate regime, and counted on the imminent collapse of the DPRK regime. At least the summit result seems to recognize that the DPRK is not going away tomorrow.

  6. John Bragg (History)

    “Is another war on the Korean peninsula more or less likely? Have nuclear dangers grown or receded – at least for now? ”

    First of all, cards on the table, I’m a John Bolton guy. Or at least I was–the John Bolton I supported would have resigned after Singapore.

    Another Korean war this year is less likely than it was in the months of “fire and fury”, in that there is now a 0% chance, rather than a 1% chance, that the US will follow through on a preemptive strike, or a “bloody nose” strike.

    Nuclear dangers, however, have grown. The Bolton Line, (which has also been the UN line, and the Six-PArty Talks line, and the US-ROK-Japan line, for what it’s worth) of North Korean disarmament as absolutely fundamental to any talks, is now as dead as the Non-Aligned Movement. Whether it was ever possible that a combination of “madman theory” and Trumpian unconcern for North Korean human rights and for South Korean allies could convince the North to give up their nukes in return for a peace treaty, a summit much like the one in Singapore, and the hollowing out or abandonment of the US-ROK alliance, or a US defense guarantee for the North vs China, that’s all gone now. North Korean nukes are here to stay.

    And if North Korean nukes are here to stay, then the chances of the North, sooner or later, launching a new War of Unification have greatly increased. During the Cold War, the US put New York at risk for Paris, because we were locked in a global bipolar contest. Is our commitment to risk Portland for Pusan credible? Frankly, it’s not credible to me.

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks for weighing in.
      North Vietnam had no need for nukes to wage a war of unification. I’m not sure nukes are the key variable here.
      I’d credit the following above nukes in terms of what happens over time on the Korean Peninsula: South Korean politics and economics, and the state of the US-ROK alliance. I’m most worried about the last part.
      Best wishes,

    • John Bragg (History)

      Well, Nork nukes change the equation. Before, the question was, would the US bleed (a lot) for Seoul, and the answer was almost certainly “Yes”. A Northern attack would trigger massive US retaliation, US would pour reinforcements into South Korea, and end the North Korean state. (Possibly in a condominium or partition with China). And there wasn’t much the North could do about it.

      North Vietnam was able to limit the conflict in Vietnam because we didn’t want to risk Chinese (or Soviet) involvement. North Korea doesn’t have that sort of backup from China, if they are the ones attacking China’s trading partners in the South.

      Nuclear missiles give the North tools to try to limit the conflict, splitting the US-Korean-(Japanese) alliance.

      Now, the North has the option of threatening American and Japanese targets.
      Open with a nuclear strike on Pusan, and convey messages demanding US and JApanese non-intervention, reply requested within 12 hours. (Japan must deny US use of JApanese bases, airspace).
      If US, Japan do not agree, strikes on Okinawa, Guam. Convey messages that if US uses nuclear weapons, North will strike US, Japanese cities.
      That gives the North 3 chances to prevent US reinforcement of the South–if they get Washington, Tokyo or Seoul to fold, that’s the ballgame.

      Will the US risk American cities for Seoul?

      For the US, the South Korean alliance is now the security equivalent of a “naked short” on Wall STreet–unlimited downside.

  7. Anon2 (History)

    John Bragg — that’s scenario, whereby DPRK nuclear strikes first and the U.S. does _nothing_ for 12 hours is just not going to happen. The almost certain U.S. war plan has, conditional upon the NK use of nuclear weapons, a massive nuclear counterstrike to obliterate their conventional forces and political leadership and then with the use of special forces, conventional forces, tactical nuclear silo/cave busters, or whatever is necessary, the “logistical” removal of the remaining DPRK nukes before they are used in your blackmail/Dr. Strangelove scenario. The DPRK leadership knows that your scenario doesn’t work, so it’s not a “naked short” for the U.S., but instead a scenario that doesn’t make rational sense for the the DPRK leadership. They can do it, but it is regime suicide, come what may. Why would they do that when they can win so many other ways, including economically?

    What is more interesting is that DPRK appears to have increased activity at their 5 MW plutonium breeder and reprocessing facility in bad faith. This could be a case where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing (like in Strangelove), or it could be a surreptitious strategy to amass further nuclear weapons during the negotiaton delaying tactic.