Not much if the first 18 months of the Trump presidency are any indication
To give you some idea just how much of a priority the Korean Peninsula really is to the Trump administration, it just got around to nominating an ambassador to South Korea on May 23rd, about three weeks before Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. In fact, as of May 25th only 84 of the 188 career and political ambassadorship positions the president is empowered to fill had either ambassadors or nominees according to the American Foreign Service Association.
While talks between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will undoubtedly help to thaw tensions for a time, peace takes more than a handshake. Frankly, neither North Korea’s leader or President Trump is all that interested in true peace. They were meeting in Southeast Asia for a photo op each desperately wanted for their respective domestic audiences and little more.
As President Obama could have told Trump, and perhaps even did but he just wasn’t listening, negotiating a nuclear deal involves years of planning and effort. This president doesn’t do that. His neglect of the State Department leaves him with a less than adequate team to work out such details. Meanwhile, John Bolton, the president’s National Security Advisor and a well-known hawk, is standing in the wings looking for the first opportunity to blow the whole effort up should it start getting off the ground.
It doesn’t take a psychic to predict what the future is likely to look like here. Trump will come home thumping his chest having “accomplished what no president has before,” a meeting with a North Korean leader. He’ll never mention and his base won’t care that the reason such a meeting has never taken place is past presidents wanted the North Koreans to change at least a few facts on the ground in exchange for the privilege of shaking the hand of a US president. Trump was willing to give the North Koreans an unconditional meeting so he could have his place in history. The foreign policy implications of the meeting never even entered his mind. We should be expecting a tweet regarding the ratings for the summit at any moment.
Having provided the world’s worst regime a greater measure of legitimacy and achieved his place in the history books, tensions should remain low for a while. Neither government has any real incentive to invest much political capital in working out anything like complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID). The statement coming out of this meeting is certainly a far cry from that.
But even if CVID did get worked out, there remains the problem of the tens of thousands of long-range artillery sitting just north of the DMZ aimed at Seoul. True peace would require their removal as well. Both the media and the public ought to know better than to think any of this could have been worked out in a 35 minute face-to-face meeting between two leaders with a reputation for bluster.
Everyone agrees that the worst possible outcome here is conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Such an eventuality would be very unlikely to remain isolated to the two Koreas and could very quickly escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Should such an event occur, Donald Trump’s name will replace Neville Chamberlain’s as our best example of an appeaser.
But Neville Chamberlain’s primary sin was naiveté. He, at least, was motivated by a desire for peace even if he should have known a man like Hitler wasn’t really all that interested. Trump is inexperienced to be sure, but it’s narcissism that’s his Achilles heel. If diplomacy mattered at all to him he would have appointed someone other than Rex Tillerson to be his first secretary of state, or at least would have instructed him to make filling key positions in the State Department a top priority.
The best we can hope for now is a slightly more tolerant status quo than we witnessed during the first few months of Trump’s tumultuous presidency. Fortunately, that’s also far more likely than war. The North Koreans will still have their guns pointed squarely at downtown Seoul and will still have at least as many nukes as they have now on inauguration day in January 2021. Even before the handshake, Trump’s ad hoc foreign policy had led Russia and China to ease the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, and that will probably continue without much opposition from Washington unless Trump sees some political advantage to making an issue out of it. In other words, the Singapore summit was just another episode in Trump’s reality TV presidency.
Other articles by Craig that you may enjoy: