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Trump: Nuclear threat from North Korea is over, you know

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It is? After a successful start to talks between the US and North Korea, Donald Trump seems eager to claim complete victory. In a tweet this morning, Trump advised the American people that they can “sleep well tonight” with the Pyongyang threat resolved:

Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018

Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer – sleep well tonight!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018

President Trump declared Wednesday that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” as he returned to Washington, offering a rosy assessment of a summit with the leader of a nation that still possesses nuclear weapons. …

Trump’s tweets followed a high-profile summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that produced a promise to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula but was scant on details.

His tweets came shortly after Air Force One landed at Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington.

There’s a wee problem with this victory lap, which is that we, um, still haven’t actually won anything yet. The agreement signed yesterday delivered nothing more than the remains of POWs and MIAs, plus an agreement to keep talking about denuclearization. Trump and Kim clearly discussed a process of denuclearization and verification, but until that process is complete, Kim still has his nukes and the delivery systems to launch them at the US and our allies. That threat is not just real but acute, even if it is less acute than it was three months ago.

Trump’s supporters and critics tried to rush to judgments yesterday in the wake of the post-summit declaration too. In my column for The Week, I argue that it’s way too soon to score:

Rather than see this as a first step in a process with unknown outcomes, most people appeared to rush to various conclusions: One side hailed the meeting as a historic achievement that should guarantee Trump a place in history, while the other considered it a surrender by Trump and a betrayal of our allies. In truth, very little has changed. Both sides have had an opportunity to size each other up and prepare for the next steps of the process, assuming those next steps come at all.

We have plenty of time to pass judgment on this strategy depending on the eventual outcome. Let’s not forget that the world hailed 1994’s Agreed Framework, which was supposed to halt North Korea’s power plant program, as a historic achievement at the time, only to discover that North Korea had been cheating all along and never planned to denuclearize. When attempts to tighten the inspection regime were made, it collapsed and led to the arms race that brought us to where we are today. Kim and his regime may still think they can get away with a similar ploy, which will make this week’s summit just another missed opportunity in a nuclear standoff. On the other hand, the summit managed to at least change the rhetoric between the two nations, allowing an opportunity for progress if — and it’s a big if — the Kim regime really does want to find a way out of the nuclear standoff it created with the U.S. and cannot hope to win.

But as tempting as it might seem, let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. We haven’t lost anything, but we also haven’t yet solved the problem. Trump himself noted that, in six months, he may very well wind up with egg on his face if Kim backtracks or refuses to commit to verifiable denuclearization. Given the history of the Kim regime, it pays to be skeptical, but not close-minded. It certainly doesn’t pay to declare victory just yet.

Trump should take more care than most on this point. The history of our dealings with Pyongyang contains mostly reversals on pledges by the Kim regime and balks at verification. The fact that they have nuclear weapons now stands as a testament to another supposed “win” for one of Trump’s predecessors, the Agreed Framework deal cut by Bill Clinton in 1994. That was another peace-in-our-time moment with North Korea that wound up leaving egg on our collective faces. The Kim regime will not give up its nuclear weapons easily, and claiming that the threat is over after a single meeting is naive at best.

If one believes the North Koreans, the process for eliminating the nuclear threat will be slow and contentious:

North Korea’s state-run media is framing the agreements reached at the Singapore summit as a “step-by-step” process intended to bring U.S. rewards in exchange for gradual moves by Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear program.

The account Wednesday in the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper could signal the first rift with President Trump over the perceived way forward with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The extensive and — by North Korean standards — speedy coverage also suggested an attempt to set the post-summit narrative of the vaguely worded declaration signed by Kim and Trump. …

The overall message appeared mostly aimed at North Koreans, portraying Kim as setting the terms of the post-summit framework and at the helm of further policy shifts away from emphasis on the nuclear arsenal — which Kim long called the nation’s “treasured sword.”

“Kim Jong Un is showing that he is not succumbing to external pressure, but carrying out denuclearization based on his own plan and vision,” said Lee Jong-seok, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, a government-affiliated think tank.

It is imperative for the Kim regime to show that any nuclear rollbacks were voluntary and not the subject of demands and threats from the United States, he noted.

Even if Kim has agreed to actually denuclearize, that decision could change depending on the fraught internal politics of the regime. It will be a long, long time before we can say that the nuclear threat from North Korea no longer exists, if indeed we ever can. And we’ll need a lot more verification of that than just a few presidential tweets, too.

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