Tuesday’s historic summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is in the books. The American president and North Korea’s dictator traveled to Singapore to discuss denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and potentially lifting economic sanctions against North Korea. After some warm handshakes and warmer words, the leaders signed a joint declaration that did not include any specific steps toward denuclearization. Trump, however, did say that the United States would cease joint military exercises with a taken-by-surprise South Korea.
To discuss what the summit means for the future of the region and for Trump’s presidency, I spoke by phone with Katy Oh, the co-author of three books on North Korea. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Kim’s strategy toward Trump, how the North Korean leader differs from his father, Kim Jong-il, and what China and South Korea will make of the summit.
Isaac Chotiner: What are your first impressions from the summit?
Katy Oh: A monkey show. [Laughs] I didn’t expect very much, but [the joint declaration] came out to be quite an ordinary and pretty bad document.
Why do you think that? Was there nothing positive?
Although the two leaders issued a stupid document and communiqué, a written document has some weight. But they didn’t put down anything that will drive North Korea to denuclearize—it’s got to be a joke. And although I think the nuclear issue is the most important issue for the United States and global security, the worst dictator [was just] welcomed with compliments by the CEO of the United States. All in all, I am very down today, and very frustrated.
Do you put any stock in the denuclearization comments at all?
Some people say that after this document, the nitty-gritty of an implementation process will begin. But we dealt with North Korea for the last 30 years, with ups and down, and today we have more nuclear weapons in North Korea than we did [in the past].
What did you make of Kim’s strategy going into this summit?
The most important bottom line is that since he came to the political stage as the country’s ultimate leader, after his father’s death in 2011, he [has] pursued two strategies for North Korea’s future. One is the complete, near-comprehensive development of deliverable missiles and deliverable nukes. And the other is economic advancement, economic development. Right now, North Korea is a nuclear state, so he wants to meet with China and South Korea and move past economic sanctions. So instead of [that] two-track strategy, he now says, We now have one strategy for the future of North Korea: economic development.
Three things have changed in North Korea. Kim replaced his father. Trump became president. And South Korea elected a leader more willing to negotiate—
You are right. The receptiveness [of the] South Korean government to North Korean demands is one of the most important factors. South Korea is the one who will give the economic aid. Do you think Donald Trump will give any money to North Korea? South Korea is receptive, [though], and is willing to fill the North’s economic demands. This is why Kim said, I cannot lose this golden opportunity.
Do you think that Kim is doing something different than his father would have done, in similar circumstances?
The personality is different first of all. Personality matters sometimes. His father was a very shy introvert. He didn’t want to meet anybody other than limited and selected invited people, but Kim likes to be under the spotlight: TV, YouTube. I mean, for God’s sake, he’s [an] extrovert. That factors in a little bit. At the same time, the nuke program was not as developed as today.
Because the nuke program is more developed, you can get a better deal from South Korea?
Yes, because [they] are a nuclear state.
What do you see as the next step here?
[The consideration of] American strategic assets [that] include incredible aircraft carriers, fighter planes, stealth bombers—occasionally they are deployed around the Pacific and close to the Korean Peninsula. It’s a symbolic gesture, but the North Koreans do not like that sort of thing at all. So a lot of these things will be put on the table, but we don’t know which will be the first steps.
The U.S. will demand steps. And then North Korea will demand steps. It’s like a brick building. I lay one brick. You do the same thing. Somehow they put in a crummy brick, instead of a full brick, [but they] build the house together. I think, though, there will be some angry critics inside the U.S. government, outside the U.S. government, and globally. The problem is that the U.S. has a shortage of energy and talent [working on this], and North Korea has nothing but a huge team working on this.
What do you think China and South Korea will each make of this summit?
China is happy, even if they might be a little bit worried that Kim will be drawn toward the United States and away from China. But they helped Kim stage this political show, and they will be happy the meeting ended without them slapping each other’s faces.
So far, I think the South Koreans are very happy because the communiqué is basically reflecting the similar spirit of the declaration that the South Korean president and Kim made when they met. It looks like they are following the South Korean steps.
Will there be South Korean angst about Trump announcing that military exercises will be put on hold?
South Korean politics is a whole different chapter. It’s not a united society. It’s not a consolidated society. There are people who are very pro–North Korean and pro-Chinese and very anti-American and anti-Japanese as well as a lot of people who think America is the best ally and that South Korea should improve its relationship with Japan. The country is divided. The people who have been arguing that the United States should withdraw and that the people of a unified Korea will then have a better life and future without the presence of superpower America are happy. But some of the country’s leaders and elites will begin to worry: We expected a much more detailed document that [would lay] down an implementation process.