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Trump’s North Korea policy weakens, but maybe he can build trust



North KoreaKevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES/Handout/Getty

  • North Korea returned the remains of 55
    , thought to belong to US servicemembers, on
  • The repatriation — on the 65th anniversary of the
    armistice that paused the Korean War — was a commitment Kim
    made at his summit with Donald Trump.
  • Every other element of Trump’s North Korea policy looks
    to have taken a nosedive, but this represents a hopeful
  • North Korea still hasn’t denuclearized and remains
    difficult in talks with the US.
  • But if the two countries can build trust over time,
    Trump’s approach has a chance of working. 

North Korea returned the remains of 55
, thought to belong to US servicemembers on Friday,
coinciding with the 65th anniversary of the armistice that paused
the Korean War.

The symbolic move represents the single, hopeful thread of
President Donald Trump’s North Korea policy, as the rest of it

“After so many years, this will be a great moment for so many
families. Thank you to Kim Jong Un,” Trump

“We are encouraged by North Korea’s actions and the momentum for
positive change,” the White House said in a statement. 

Benjamin Young, a North Korea expert from George Washington
University previously told Business

“The repatriation of the Korean
War remains is significant in that it partially closes a painful
chapter in US-Korea relations.”

“It’s significant from a historical perspective and is

That Trump and Kim Jong Un’s joint statement at Singapore
lists the “immediate” repatriation of the bodies shows the
historical and symbolic importance of the repatriations, but it
wasn’t easy getting here.

Trump agreed to the summit with Kim on vague promises of
denuclearization which met with near universal doubt.

Many former top experts advised Trump to skip the meeting
entirely, seeing it as providing Kim with international
legitimacy even though he oversees some of the worst human rights
violations in the world, including keeping an estimated 2.6 million
“modern slaves.”

Trump’s policy hangs by a thread

north korea ship to ship
Treasury photos show a ship-to-ship transfer with a North
Korea-linked vessel.


After the summit, Trump saw his greatest success on the
North Korean front swiftly undone.

The “maximum pressure” regime of economic, diplomatic, and
military pressure completely evaporated, even though the
administration insists it is still in effect.

The China-North Korea border again hums with commerce and
activity, and Chinese tourists again crowd the streets of
Pyongyang, analysis from NK News points
. Fuel prices have dropped, indicating an increased

“Numerous” sanctioned North Korean ships have appeared in
South Korean ports, NKNews found

North Korea has realized a primary goal of its US-facing
diplomacy — sanctions relief — while only providing minimal,
reversible, and unverifiable dismantlement of a tiny fraction of
its nuclear arsenal. 

The audacity of hope

trump kim singapore
Only Trump has met with a North Korean leader while in


Viewed as a transaction, the North Korea process has ripped
off the US by handing over international legitimacy and an end to
US-South Korean military drills in exchange for baby steps towards

Viewed as a budding relationship, Trump has made
unprecedented progress in healing relations with

Returning the bodies of US soldiers doesn’t change anything
on the ground in the Koreas. North Korea still has artillery guns
and missiles ready to bear down on Seoul, and possibly the US,
and they haven’t budged. 

But the measure builds confidence and trust, which is
sorely needed. North Korea dragged its feet and stood up US
in previous talks about repatriating the bodies,
but eventually came through. 

No other US president has been
willing to talk to North Korea
, citing its illegal nuclear program,
serious human rights violations, and
countless kidnappings and attacks on civilians. But Trump took a
unique approach in meeting Kim, and has earned a unique

At the Aspen Strategy Forum, Commander of the US forces in
Korea General Vincent Brooks shed light on how US objectives in
North Korea have shifted from military to diplomatic:

“Our challenge now, candidly, is to continue to make progress but
to make that progress in an environment that is essentially void
of trust, and without trust, we’ll find it difficult to move

“So, building that trust while that pressure continues and while
the efforts for diplomacy continue is the order of the day. In
many ways, the lack of trust is the enemy we now have to defeat.”

Trump has not denuclearized North Korea, or even gotten
close. But he’s presented a different US position and in doing so
offered a path, however perilous, towards a new future between
Washington and Pyongyang. 

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