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

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