Depending where you live on this smoldering, doomed planet that spins us dumbly and irreversibly towards sunset, Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore either yesterday or today. And if you listen to what Trump says about that meeting, the results were just as confusing and contradictory as humankind’s necessary but insufficient approximation of the structure of time. At the end of the long day, the two leaders — or as Fox & Friends put it, the two dictators — signed what Trump called a “historic” and “terrific” and “very strong” agreement in which North Korea gave us almost nothing. But Trump gave them the farm.
The final document is limited, but Trump’s follow-up press conference and exclusive interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos offered insight into a wider spoken agreement both wide-ranging and insane. It seems the president, all too eager to strike a historic deal, doesn’t have a firm grasp of what just happened. True, the meeting was historic. The document, however, was merely history.
Before I launch into my critique, though, I think it’s important to make clear what a lot of Trump critics either forget to mention (myself included) or don’t even think about: Peace is wonderful, and we should first and foremost support our president in his quest to effect peace in Korea. Please, please read Shane Ryan’s sober and refreshing take to remind yourself of that.
Still, I’m going to write from the other side, because we can’t ignore the fact that Trump is dangerously dumb and fascistic simply because we’re afraid of coming off as partisan. While diplomacy, and a meeting of heads of state, is a great and necessary first step, it’s also ridiculous, and not reflexively anti-Trump, to assume that a corrupt and willfully uninformed rageaholic can capably guide this delicate process. In the end North and South Korea will likely achieve some sort of peace, but that project will carry lots of long-term risk for the U.S. that pundits on both sides don’t bother to discuss. Especially important: How this will help China, and how quickly, and how, many years downstream, that will affect things in the U.S. such as prices, jobs, and the possibility of facing down a much, much bigger nuclear threat. Those are some other stakes here.
In other words, even though peace is a good thing, peace under Trump’s leadership might lead in the long term to other types of bad things for the United States. North Korea’s denuclearization would be fucking fantastic, and if North Korea opens to trade, and if the world welcomes it, it would change the lives of millions of impoverished people. But in the process Trump might do other damage. You might accept this tradeoff, and, considering millions of people might now live livable lives, and that China will step into our shoes at some point anyway, I honestly would accept it. But though it’s not clear whether any president could strike a favorable deal with North Korea, considering they have all the bargaining power, Trump does pose unique risks, and he made this clear to the world almost immediately. Peace can still be dangerous.
Let’s break it down. Some of this is tongue-in-cheek. Most isn’t.
What each side got
Trump and Kim agreed to four points in the agreement itself:
1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
To break that down, it’s actually three points. Points one and two are the same. And of all those points, the only new one here is…
None of them.
North Korea has promised to work towards peace with the U.S.-led alliance several times in the past. As number three says itself, Pyongyang committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” back in April, when Kim Jong-un met not with an American representative, but with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. And the U.S. and North Korea have worked together on the fourth point, which is a critical promise for American veterans. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency says that 7,702 members of American armed services from the Korean War are still missing. Between 1990 and 2005, U.S. and North Korean search teams, working together, recovered 229 sets of remains before President George W. Bush canceled the searches over worries about the safety of American participants.
As for what Trump has incompletely called “the complete denuclearization of North Korea,” the agreement calls for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This includes all American nuclear capability in and around North and South Korea.
So we got nothing. What’d we give?
First, we gave them international legitimacy: The U.S. and North Korean flags flew beside each other, equally handsome and prominent. We gave Kim, a ruthless dictator and murderer who is guilty of crimes against humanity, the prestige of meeting with the President of the United States, who said it was his “honor” to meet him. Related: We ignored the issue of human rights, telegraphing that if a dictator kills enough people and starves his country in defiant pursuit of the most dangerous weapons on the planet, we will still reward him. And we praised them for agreeing to literally nothing new.
Again: No promises to dismantle or reduce the nuclear arsenal. No language about how denuclearization would happen, or how disarmament would be verified, or a timetable, or even a general starting point.
But news of the biggest concessions came afterwards, in Trump’s press conference and interview. Here are those points.
End joint military exercises
Trump told Stephanopoulos that he promised Kim we would end joint military exercises with South Korea, calling them “provocative.”
...I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do from the beginning. We stopped playing those war games that cost us a fortune. You know, we’re spending a fortune, every couple of months we’re doing war games with South Korea, and I said, ‘What’s this costing?’ We’re flying planes in from Guam, we’re bombing empty mountains for practice. I said ‘I want to stop that and I will stop that,’ and I think it’s very provocative —
Again: Trump said he’s wanted to end those war games from the beginning. But a year ago he ordered more military ships to the Korean peninsula. They spent a few days traveling the wrong direction. He also threatened North with Korea nuclear war several times.
Trump apparently didn’t run his new platform by South Korea, whose government issued a statement saying “we need to figure out President Trump’s accurate meaning” about halting the war games.
He apparently didn’t run it by his own military, either. A spokeswoman for the U.S. military forces in Korea said in an email that they hadn’t been notified of this plan: “In coordination with our [South Korean] partners, we will continue with our current military posture until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense … and/or Indo-Pacific Command.”
In a press conference, Trump added that he wants to “bring our soldiers home” from South Korea, adding, “that’s not part of the equation right now.”
The U.S. military stations around 30,000 troops in South Korea, and we maintain an Air Force base for fighter planes. Until now the military insisted our regular joint exercises with South Korea are purely defensive in nature, as part of our commitment to protect our ally from the threat of a North Korea invasion or attack. Trump’s new promise runs a high risk of damaging our relationships with both of our allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, who might not trust our commitment to their safety.
We have to run those exercises in order to practice and develop new responses to the ever-changing conditions in the region as Kim’s nuclear program advances.
Trump knows a lot about planes
Trump also said he wanted to stop U.S. Air Force bombing run practice from Guam, citing the cost.
I think they’re very, very expensive. To do it, we have to fly planes in from Guam — that’s six and a half hours away. Big bombers and everything else, I said, ‘Who’s paying for this?’ I mean, who pays, in order to practice.
At the press conference he added, “I know a lot about planes.”
Trump is pathologically corrupt
Though this came from the press conference and not the interview, it’s impossible to leave out:
Trump Tower Pyongyang is the Bastille of resorts made with peasant blood and balsa wood.
North Korea apparently made a whole lot of verbal promises behind closed doors
When Stephanopoulos pressed Trump about whether he’d gotten any further assurances from Kim that North Korea would in fact denuclearize, Trump revealed that Kim had actually made a lot of major promises. Those promises, however, weren’t included in the signed document, if they were made at all.
They’re going to get rid of certain ballistic missile sites and various other things. We’re gonna put that out later. But we have the framework of getting ready to denuclearize North Korea.
No framework was in the document. And if they were “gonna put that out later,” Trump kind of just tipped the hand.
Trump also said North Korea will destroy more missile sites and stop both new missile launches and nuclear research. “They’re getting rid of things that haven’t been mentioned in the document. They’re getting rid of certain missile areas and they’re not going to be sending missiles up. They’re not doing research…”
We’ll know if Trump is lying about that soon
Stephanopoulos sensibly asked Trump if Kim actually said this stuff. Trump said not only did Kim say it, but that North Korea would make announcements about these promises soon:
G: Did he tell you that?
T: Yeah, he’s de-nuking, I mean he’s de-nuking the whole place. It’s going to start very quickly. I think he’s going to start now. They’ll be announcing things over the next few days talking about other missile sites because they were, as you know, they were sending out a lot of missiles.
G: The North Koreans are going to announce these additional steps as well?
T: Yeah they’re going to be announcing them shortly, they might have announced them already but after we signed we agreed to that also.
“They might have announced them already.” Who knows!
North Korea hasn’t announced any of this, but that’s not to say, yet, that they won’t.
Trump’s selective understanding of “denuclearization”
It’s not clear whether Trump doesn’t fully understand what “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” means, doesn’t want to admit to himself that it doesn’t mean what he knows it means, or is fully aware of what it means and has such a low opinion of anyone other than himself that he believes he can convince people it doesn’t mean what it means.
Denuclearization of the peninsula means just that: The whole peninsula. In other words, this includes U.S. nukes. The document itself doesn’t single out North Korea, but Trump sort of ignores that. He also told Stephanopoulos Kim did mean just North Korea.
G: Does that mean that the nuclear umbrella that we have over South Korea is on the table for negotiation?
T: No. That means that they’re going to get rid of their nuclear weapons. We never even discussed the other. They’re going to get rid of their nuclear weapons, George, and I think they want to do it relatively quickly. Now, we’re going to see. I mean, they’re going to start working on it immediately. We’re going to work with South Korea. We’re going to work with Japan. We’re going to work with China. But it really has been an incredible exercise.
Just because they didn’t discuss “the other” doesn’t mean it’s not a condition for Kim. What Kim gave Trump in writing is vastly different from what Trump gave us in his fleeting verbal contradictions. Time, of course, will tell the truth better than Trump.
Trump has spoken to Kim before
Or so he says. This was a secret, and should be kind of a shock.
G: So we saw you sign the agreement right in this room. You also said you developed a special bond with Kim. Describe that bond.
T: Well, it’s been a very intense day, and as you know, we discussed things over the last few months.
G: You did? You’ve spoken with him before?
T: Yeah, I have spoken, yes, I have spoken to him, I have spoken to a lot of his people, his, as you know, his, I would say very top person was at the White House last week.
Of course, with all those qualifications at the end, this does seem like classic Trump bullshittery.
Trump thinks North Koreans love their murderous dictator
The president, unprompted, said this about Kim:
G: What other kinds of security guarantees did you offer, did you put on the table?
T: Well, we’ve given him, I don’t wanna talk about it specifically, but we’ve given him, he’s going to be happy. His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor. They’re gonna put it together, and I think they’re going to end up with a very strong country, and a country which has people — that they’re so hard working, so industrious.
It’s unclear where Trump gleaned this understanding of North Korean work ethic, but perhaps it’s because an estimated 200,000 of them perform forced work in prison camps, and another 20 million toil to eke our a day-to-day existence in imposed poverty. Kim’s tapped into the genius economic incentive of starvation. And the fervor his people exert is born of decades of mainlining state propaganda, and under penalty of imprisonment.
Kim also tortures his citizens, imprisons untold thousands unjustly, executes people without trial and often cruelly, such as via anti-aircraft cannon. He murdered his half-brother outside the country with chemical weapons and executed his own uncle.
His people might indeed harbor a fervor, but it’s not the kind Trump means.
And Stephanopoulos, to his credit, didn’t let this slide (emphasis mine):
G: You say his people love him. Just a few months ago you accused him of starving his people. And listen, here’s the rub. Kim is a brutal dictator. He runs a police state, forced starvation, labor camps. He’s assassinated members of his own family. How do you trust a killer like that?
T: George, I’m given what I’m given, okay? I mean, this is what we have, and this is where we are, and I can only tell you from my experience, and I met him, I’ve spoken with him, and I’ve met him. And this was, as you know, started very early and it’s been very intense. I think that he really wants to do a great job for North Korea. I think he wants to denuke, it’s very important. Without that, there’s nothing to discuss. That was on the table at the beginning, and you see a total denuclearization of North Korea, so important. And, he wants to do the right thing. Now, with all of that being said, I can’t talk about — it doesn’t matter. We’re starting from scratch. We’re starting right now, and we have to get rid of those nuclear weapons.
That “I can’t talk about” part the Trump slipped in there is the answer to the question. He can’t talk about human rights because it was off the table to begin with.
Trump went even further in his press conference. He said Kim loves his people and was a “talented” leader. Trump even both-sidesed the human rights issue: “It’s rough in a lot of places, not just there.”
Trump has previously and on several occasions Kim’s regime “brutal.” He also called Kim “little rocket man,” a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, and short and fat.
Trump doesn’t know the name of Italy’s new prime minister
Trump also took a quick detour into some of the finer details of the G7 conference. Of note, he doesn’t seem to know the name of Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, whom Trump just met a few days ago at the G7 conference: “I have great relationship with the new man who I like a lot as you know from Italy.”
Conte, who like Trump is a populist with authoritarian tendencies, was the only person Trump would say he had a great relationship with at the gathering of our allies. Oh, and Merkel, too, who, judging by this viral photo doesn’t seem to reciprocate.
In the interview, Trump also took the opportunity to repeat the same lies about our trade deficit with the EU and Canada.
The bottom line
We’ll know if Trump is telling the truth about North Korea soon enough, and we’ll have a better idea of how these insane policy proposals will play out once Trump comes home and gets put through the wringer of the U.S. national security apparatus.
All these policies are all great news for China, by the way, who will probably use the opportunity to begin pushing us out of the region in the next few months. It’s worth noting that Kim Jong-un flew into Singapore on an Air China jet. Not exactly subtle.
The other takeaways: He’s a fascist who loves fascists, and he’s a complete idiot. But that’s nothing new.
Also, regardless of what happens with North Korea, we won’t be fine. Our president is incompetent, corrupt, and easily confused, and the American republic is in slow-mo collapse. But if from out of this abyss we can manage to toss peace on the Korean peninsula, it’d be the best way to go.