The Art of the Photo-Op

The Art of the Photo-Op

On Tuesday, June 12, 2018 Donald Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore to discuss a potential nuclear deal and terms to deescalate the tensions both on the peninsula and between the United States and the deceptively named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). To hear Trump tell it, this historic meeting was a raging success. To be fair, the meeting was an historic event. While previous DPRK leaders have communicated with US leaders in the past and reached so-called agreements, this marks the first time that an actual meeting has taken place between a DPRK dictator and a US president. Given the fact that just mere months ago Trump was threatening to lay waste to the Korean peninsula, risking a nuclear war that could have lead to the deaths of untold millions, the meeting should be recognized as something of an achievement. However, the details of the agreement, if such a word can rightly be used, leave more than a little to be desired.

First, we should take a step back and look at Trump’s frequent criticisms of the Iran nuclear deal. The Join Comprehensive Plan of Action, its official title, was negotiated and signed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany as its own country, and the European Union. It lifted sanctions, unfroze financial assets seized by the United States in the 1970s, and allowed for Iran to begin engaging in commerce with the rest of the western world. In return, Iran agreed to reduce its enriched stockpile by 97%, place 2/3 of its centrifuges in storage for for ten years, and agreed to independent inspections, among other provisions.

Trump, as well as a host of other Republicans and conservative pundits, often criticized the deal as being “the worst ever,” despite the many countries that signed on and were pleased with the deal. Many experts supported the deal as well, and it was generally hailed as a huge achievement not just for Obama, but for the west. It ensured an Iran that was not pursuing nuclear weapons, as well as an Iran that was entering the capitalist world of the west, willing to play ball on those terms. Trump, for his part, ran partially on a platform of backing out of the deal and earlier this year he made good on this promise over the objections of even some of his own advisers. For the part of the rest of the signatory nations, they reaffirmed their commitment to the deal and sought to ensure that it would remain in place. Much has been written and speculated about the strategic implications of backing out of a deal right before entering into negotiations with another proto-nuclear state. Regardless, Trump forged ahead.

Now that the summit has ended and the deal has been released we have the ability to see exactly what the self-proclaimed greatest deal maker has won. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to use Trump’s own words, the worst deal in the history of the country. For a start, it barely qualifies as a deal. At best, it could be called an agreement to talk again soon. At worst, it is a giveaway to the DPRK that has no precedent. Save for Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” no deal has given away so much for so little other than the word of an untrustworthy dictator. Just how untrustworthy is the DPRK? Consider this (abridged) list of previous agreements as detailed by the Arms Control Association:

1985: North Korea signs Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty
1992: North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program
1994: North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program
1999: North Korea signs historic agreement to end missile tests
2000: North Korea signs historic agreement to reunify Korea 
2005: North Korea declares support for denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2005: North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program and denuclearize
2006: North Korea declares support for denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2006: North Korea again support for denuclearization of Korean peninsula
2007: North Korea signs historic agreement to halt nuclear program
2007: N&S Korea sign agreement on reunification
2010: North Korea commits to ending Korean War
2010: North Korea announces commitment to denuclearize
2010: North Korea again announces commitment to denuclearize
2011: North Korea announces plan to halt nuclear and missile tests
2012: North Korea announces halt to nuclear program
2015: North Korea offers to halt nuclear tests
2016: North Korea again announces support for denuclearization

Simply put, the DPRK does not have a particularly great track record of trustworthiness as it relates to its nuclear aspirations. While it could be argued that neither does Iran, the main difference so far lies in that the Iran deal was a multinational agreement with many different signatories that allowed for independent inspections and carried with it built-in punitive measures. The so-called DPRK agreement has neither of these things. So what does this agreement have?

It carries with it no substance from the DPRK. This is probably not unexpected given the fact that prior to the meeting Trump declared that he did not need to prepare for the meeting. This lack of preparation shows in the results. What are those results? First is a concession from Trump to guarantee security for the DPRK. It remains unclear what that exactly means, but this should be taken in conjunction with Trump’s promise to halt joint military exercises with South Korea. This came as news to the government of South Korea, who released a statement from President Moon Jae In’s office that “At this moment, we need to figure out President Trump’s accurate meaning and intention.” This also came with criticism from Trump aimed towards South Korea that they “contribut[e] (to military exercises), but not 100%, which is a subject that we have to talk to them about.” Trump also referred to South Korea as cheap due to their use of US bombers based in Guam as opposed to purchasing outright those same bombers from the US.

Another point of the agreement (which only has four broadly worded points in itself) is that the DPRK reaffirms the Panmunjam Declaration from April of this year. This declaration was reached between the two Koreas and already exists. This is not a new development, but rather a statement that they will continue to do what they are already doing. The agreement already exists, and was reached without the help of Trump. It should not be considered a win for Trump. The other two major points of the agreement are a promise to talk again at some indeterminate time in the future with unspecified “high-level officials,” and the declaration (again) to work towards the reclamation of remains of US POWS from the original Korean War. This is something that has been declared over and over again since the original armistice back in the 1950s. Again, nothing new.

Another concession from the US is that of the legitimization of the DPRK regime. The many photos and film clips are, of course, a propaganda gift to the DPRK regime. This allows Kim to show his people that he is a great leader who can meet with the all-powerful United States as equals. This comes with the knowledge that during the meeting that Trump did not raise the issue of humans rights violations, or the US citizens – civilians – that have been held and tortured to death by the dictatorial regime. Additionally, Trump lavished praise on Kim declaring him a leader that “loves his people.” To be clear, this is a near totalitarian government that relies on prison camps, slave labor, torture, and executions to retain power. Some of those executed include Kim’s family members and military personnel who fell asleep in Kim’s presence.

Further, and perhaps a more pressing matter considering that Trump declared that he did not need to prepare for the meeting, is that there is a fundamental disagreement of what “denuclearization” means to the two nations. For the US, this means that the DPRK gives up and destroys it nuclear capabilities. For the DPRK, this means that the US withdraw its presence from South Korea. As we have already seen, this is something that Trump not only floated in the meeting, but affirmed is a goal of his in the subsequent press conference.

What has the DPRK agreed to give the US in return? Well, nothing really. Indeed, the list is actually what the DPRK did not agree to do:

  • Freezing of plutonium and uranium programs
  • Destruction of ICBMs
  • Allow inspectors to nuclear sites
  • Make a full declaration of the nuclear program
  • A timetable towards compliance or denuclearization
  • Verification of steps taken towards denuclearization
  • Halting the testing of nuclear weapons and/or long-range missles

So, just how are Republicans reacting to the deal? Mitch McConnell has stated that he wants a formal treaty that can be voted on by Congress. While these words are not exactly a scorching critique of the deal, it does signal that McConnell doesn’t have much faith in the negotiating skills of the president, and that he thinks the United States should not honor Trump’s deal as is.

Fox News contributor Erik Erikson hates it. Writing for The Maven he stated that

We got nothing from this it would seem except the promise of more talking. And while we are talking, they are building nuclear weapons. About the only reason, they’ve gotten to this point is because China would very much like for the United States to wind down its military presence in Asia, so China has less to worry about as it expands.

and

Had Barack Obama done that, Republicans would be demanding his impeachment.

Fear not, however. For if Trump is wrong he has already declared that he would make excuses.

I may be wrong. I may stand before you in six months and say, “Hey, I was wrong.” I don’t know that I’ll admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.

Truly, these are the words of a stable genius that can be trusted with complicated international issues spanning back nearly all the decades of his life, for which he, by his own admission, did not feel the need to prepare.

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