Trump-Kim summit: what it means and what comes next

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just signed an agreement committing to work together to “build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

The agreement, while a positive sign, offers little proof that North Korea will follow up on its promises to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” North Korea has made similar promises to the previous three US administrations, and each time they have reneged.

So what are we to make of this agreement? Does this put Washington and Pyongyang on a path toward sustained peace, or was this mostly about optics and headlines? And if North Korea fails to honor this agreement, where does that leave us?

To answer these questions, I reached out to Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT and an expert on US-North Korea relations. He explains why this was largely a victory for North Korea, and why the agreement will likely legitimize the role of nuclear weapons in international politics.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What’s the significance of Trump and Kim’s agreement? What does it actually mean?

Vipin Narang

The value of the summit for both Kim and Trump was to have the summit. I think Trump really enjoys the theatrics, really enjoys being able to say that he’s achieved what no president had before, which is negotiating with the North Korean leader. But that’s exactly what Kim wanted as well.

In terms of the substance of the agreement, it is weaker or on par with agreements struck between North Korea and the US since 1993. They merely promised to “work toward” the goal of denuclearization, which is about as vague and meaningless as it gets. And in a lot of ways, Kim ends up the winner, because he has extracted a freeze on US-South Korean military exercises as long as the dialogue continues, and as long as North Korea continues to freeze its development of nukes.

But it’s important to stipulate that North Korea is probably at a point in its technical development cycle where it can afford to suspend full-blown missile testing, in which case Kim emerges as the big winner. He gets to sit down as an equal to the US president, commit to nothing, and, for the short term, drive a wedge between the US and South Korea.

Sean Illing

This strikes me as a mostly symbolic victory for Trump and an actual victory for Kim Jong Un.

Vipin Narang

I’m not sure it’s even a symbolic victory for Trump, although I’m sure he’ll spin it that way. But the reality is that North Korea just laid the blueprint for states that want to get nuclear weapons. They see this, and the message is pretty clear: Look what happens when you develop nukes. This legitimizes the power of nuclear weapons in international politics, and that’s not good for the world or for US policy.

Sean Illing

It’s easy to see what Kim Jon Un gets out of this, but I’m struggling to see what Trump gains.

Vipin Narang

To be fair to the Trump administration, nothing that previous administrations have done was working, so they tried a top-down approach. They tried to get Kim to sit down and lower the temperature in the region, and they’ve done that.

Worst-case scenario: They’ve kicked the can down the road, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

But now you’ve put the imprimatur of the US presidency on this piece of paper, and we’ll have to see whether they can actually continue this momentum. I see no world in which Kim gives up his nuclear weapons, but the US can still gain meaningful objectives out of this.

Sean Illing

Is there any reason to think North Korea will honor this agreement? Is there any way for us to meaningfully enforce these measures?

Vipin Narang

There’s really nothing to enforce at this point. The text of the agreement is so vague that it’s not clear what could be enforced. Remember, North Korea hasn’t agreed to give up or suspend anything. They’ve literally committed to nothing, so what would we even verify?

Sean Illing

So North Korea gives up nothing, but the US has agreed to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea. How will South Korea and Japan react to this deal?

Vipin Narang

It should scare South Korea and Japan. South Korea is probably more willing to accept this if it means a continuation of a political process, but for Japan, this looks very bad because it shows that the instinct of the Trump administration is to reduce our footprint in East Asia. If we pull away from our partnership with South Korea, why wouldn’t Japan assume that they’re next?

Sean Illing

What’s the rational response from Japan in that case?

Vipin Narang

I’m sure Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, is on the phone right now trying to get assurances from President Trump that he won’t do the same to him, and that joint exercises between the US and Japan will continue. That’s really all he can do at this point.

Sean Illing

How does this deal look from the perspective of China?

Vipin Narang

China looks like a big winner. Their ultimate goal is a nuclear North Korea that doesn’t provoke a war on the Korean Peninsula, so that there’s a buffer between South Korea, US forces, and China. So China and North Korea are unambiguous winners here. The US comes out mostly even, having gained a nice photo op. South Korea, depending on how it reacts, can still gain from this. Japan appears to be the immediate loser.

Sean Illing

It would appear that we’ve vindicated Kim Jong Un’s strategy of illegally building and testing nuclear weapons to enhance his influence and credibility on the international stage.

Vipin Narang

That’s exactly right. This is why the US spent so long trying to stop states like Iraq and Libya from getting nukes in the first place. Kim bought himself a lifetime insurance policy, and other states, like Iran, are sure to notice that.

Sean Illing

At the very least, war seems less likely today than yesterday, and that’s a good thing.

Vipin Narang

In the short term, I think that’s right. But I worry about what happens if North Korea does violate this deal. What will Trump do then? The risks of conflict might increase in that case.

But for now, this makes war less likely.

Sean Illing

So where do we go from here?

Vipin Narang

We kicked the can down the road. Hopefully, it buys both sides some time. Kim is not going to get rid of his nuclear weapons, but maybe he lowers the temperature on the testing so that there aren’t direct provocations that raise the risks of conflict. And then maybe we enter a deterrence regime, like we did with China in the 1960s and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That, I think, is the best possible outcome.

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