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Kim Jong Un beats Trump on nuclear issue, but Trump may ultimately win



North Korea
Since this moment,
Northeast Asia has known a new peace.

Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty

  • President Donald Trump said he set out to denuclearize
    North Korea, yet intelligence reports routinely point out that
    the country has continued work on nuclear
  • Trump’s major success in dealing with North Korea,
    forcing China to enforce UN sanctions on Pyongyang, has totally
  • But an expert says Trump must have known
    denuclearization was a long shot, and he’s made progress at
    bringing North Korea into peace talks.
  • Trump has already lowered the tensions with North Korea
    and created an opening for peace in Northeast Asia.
  • Experts and pundits can criticize Trump, but he’s been
    extracting political benefits from a situation that seems to
    suit him just fine. 

President Donald Trump entered talks with North Korean leader Kim
Jong Un with the stated goal of denuclearizing the country, yet
wave after wave of US intelligence reports have proven that Pyongyang has
continued to build missiles and bombs

Meanwhile, Trump’s major success in dealing with North Korea,
getting China to enforce UN sanctions on Pyongyang, has totally

Since the Singapore summit, China and Russia have resumed significant levels of
trade with North Korea
, stabilizing an economy that had been
tanking. So North Korea has achieved its major stated goal from
the talks, sanctions relief, while the US has barely moved the
needle towards denuclearization. 

But denuclearization isn’t the only game in town. There’s another
goal worth pursuing on the Korean Peninsula, and Trump has
brought us further towards it than any previous president:

North Korea’s nuclear threat is over

north korea hwasong artillery ballistic missile test launch march 2017 kcna
ballistic missiles are test-launched in a photo that North Korea
released in March 2017.

KCNA (North

Upon leaving Singapore, Trump declared an end to the North
Korean nuclear threat
. Many media outlets dismissed this as
premature and baseless, but according to Yun Sun, a North Korea
expert at the Stimson Center, Trump has a legitimate point.

“If we believe that North Korean possession of missiles and
nuclear material, that by itself is a threat, the capacity, then
if the North Koreans have the capacity, they have a threat,” said
Sun. “But, the deescalation of tensions would diminish or
eventually eliminate the North Korea desire to use those
materials,” thereby lowering or eliminating the threat.

North Korea still has nuclear weapons and missiles. So do China,
Russia, Pakistan, India, France, the UK and Israel, but nobody
talks about the threat to the US posed by France’s nukes, because
relations have been friendly between these historic allies for

Denuclearizing North Korea will take years, if not decades, experts
, but Trump has begun to rehabilitate relations in just
a few months. Both have a real impact on threat levels. 

Sun said that partisan politics have in part driven the desire to
call Trump’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea a failure, but
objectively, US-North Korean relations have improved, and with
that, comes a gradual reduction in threat level. 

Many assume Trump is dumb. Don’t.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: President-elect Donald Trump (L) talks after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (R) in the Oval Office November 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Trump is scheduled to meet with members of the Republican leadership in Congress later today on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald

Win McNamee/Getty

Experts fear that Trump may read one of the bombshell media
stories about North Korea’s continued nuclear efforts and angrily
threaten Kim as he did in the “fire and fury” days, but “that
position assumes Trump is dumb,” said Sun.

“A more probable scenario” than Trump foolishly not
listening to his own intelligence reports and instead taking
Kim’s word for things, “is that Trump understood he was not going
to get the kind of denuclearization that many in the US defined,
but he’s was willing to pursue talks, not because it was going to
produce denuclearization, but because he can extract benefits out
of the process,” said Sun.

Trump frequently responds to media reporting, but he also
receives daily intelligence briefings on the source material that
later percolates down to the media. Basically, he must know North
Korea is continuing work on nuclear weapons. He must have known
denuclearization was a long shot. Likely, he knew these things
before the media and pundits that challenge him so. 

A second, parallel fear held by many in the expert
community is that North Korea will again launch a missile or
undertake some provocative act that causes an angry reaction from
Trump. These experts hold that North Korea refers to its nuclear
weapons as a “treasured sword,” and won’t part with them.

But North Korea already said it would stop nuclear
and long-range missile testing
, and Sun says she can’t
imagine it happening without a serious deterioration of relations

Meanwhile, Trump can accurately say that North Korea
stopped its provocations after he cracked down on them, leaving
it to his political opponents to explain on TV why that’s a bad

Peace in Northeast Asia

Kim Jong Un
Korea leader Kim Jong Un inspects Chunghung farm in Samjiyon


Since the Singapore summit, North Korea has repatriated remains of US soldiers
killed in the 1950s Korean War
. South Korea has invited North
Koreans along to the Asian Games, where Kim himself got an
invite. North Korea has improved ties with China, and removed
anti-US propaganda from shops and pronouncements. 

Kim’s personal focus has shifted
from nuclear weapons to domestic economics
. When before North
Korean photography showed Kim mainly overseeing military
installations around Pyongyang, he’s recently been pictured out
among fields and factories supervising workers. Unlike continued
sanctions and pressure proposed by Trump’s opponents, improved
relations with North Korea can actually improve the lives of the
25 million that live there. 

In South Korea, an alternative vision to denuclearization
has started to take root among the pro-engagement crowd: A peace

“If you are pro-engagement, you’ll say Trump has achieved a
lot. It’s a very political issue. If you’re a [US] Democrat
you’re going to say that Trump has not achieved anything new,”
said Sun.

But as is often the case, both sides of an issue can hold
part of the truth. North Korea hasn’t seriously embarked on
denuclearizing, but Trump’s summit with Kim has increased the
peace. It’s still early days in a shaky process of normalizing
ties, but for now, Trump’s setback on denuclearization doesn’t
undo the strides towards peace. 

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