The World

How Trump Solved the North Korea Crisis by Not Solving It

A year ago, the threat of Kim Jong-un’s nukes felt real and imminent. Now, so much—and yet so little—has changed.

A woman walks past a television screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un giving a New Year’s speech.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on TV at a railway station in Seoul on Jan. 1. Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

Today marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump tweeting that his “Nuclear Button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong-un’s. That was in response to the North Korean leader warning in his 2018 New Year’s address that the United States should be aware that “the nuclear button is on my office desk all the time.”

It’s almost hard to remember now that the prospect of nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea seemed very real and imminent a year ago. At the dawning of this new year, we’re in a much different place. In his 2019 New Year’s address, Kim affirmed that he is “ready to meet the US president again anytime,” to which Trump responded, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim who realizes so well that North Korea possesses great economic potential!”

On the other hand, maybe things haven’t changed so much. A New York Times headline today suggests that Trump and Kim are “back at square 1.” After all, despite the historic meeting in June between the two leaders in Singapore, North Korea has not dismantled its nuclear program. In fact, analysts believe it is still building weapons and expanding facilities related to the program. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been intermittent and tense, with few signs of any potential for a breakthrough on either the nuclear issue or on North Korea’s main aim: a peace treaty formally ending the 1950–53 Korean War. Kim’s speech this year wasn’t all sunshine. It also included the threat, which Trump seems to have decided to gloss over, that if the U.S. continues to “unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state and for achieving peace and stability of the Korean peninsula.” He didn’t elaborate on what this “new way” might be, but it’s consistent with North Korea’s long history of vague and empty threats of violence.

By any normal criteria, including his own during his first year in office, Trump’s outreach to North Korea has been a failure. Kim’s weapons are still a threat to his neighbors and—depending on the questionable reliability of his long-range missiles—possibly the United States as well. And the U.S. has far less leverage over him than it did a year ago. While U.S. and international sanctions remain in place, pressure on other countries to implement them has dropped off dramatically. Enforcement of sanctions from North Korea’s key trading partners, China and Russia, reportedly is particularly lax.

But in multiple ways, tensions have eased over the past year. Despite the wariness of U.S. officials, South Korea and North Korea have taken major steps toward normalizing relations, including pulling troops back from the Demilitarized Zone and reconnecting road and rail links. (While Trump’s treatment of South Korea has often been dismissive, bordering on abusive, Trump’s desire for a victory has given President Moon Jae-in space to pursue this rapprochement that he might not have had amid a more conventional administration in Washington.) And Kim has stood by his pledge not to test any more long-range missiles or bombs. The last major test was in November 2017. This has, at the very least, kept North Korea’s nukes out of the headlines and reduced the number of flashpoint incidents that could escalate to an all-out conflict.

Trump often argues that he’s the only one who could have reached this deal with Kim. And in a way, he’s right, though it has little to do with his negotiating skill. It’s hard to imagine a President Hillary Clinton or a President Jeb Bush selling the public and Congress on a “deal” that allows Kim to keep his nuclear arsenal and loosens sanctions enforcement in exchange for nothing more than halting the provocative missile tests and a few symbolic gestures.

No other president would have declared victory after such meaningless concessions from Kim. No other president would have met with Kim in the first place. But on the other hand, it’s unlikely that any other president would have had any better luck in inducing Kim to give up his weapons without launching a war that could have killed millions. (A President Lindsey Graham would have been just fine with the latter scenario, Bob Woodward’s reporting suggests.)

Nuclear weapons technology is older than color television, and at this point, any country that really wants nukes and is willing to endure the resulting sanctions and international opprobrium probably can develop them. North Korea wants the status that countries like Israel, Pakistan, and India have attained, possessing arsenals that are in violation of international norms but generally treated as facts of life that no one can do much about. Trump’s remarkable feat, intentional or not, has been in getting the U.S. public to accept North Korea as a de facto nuclear power.

For most of this past year, it seemed like this con would be unsustainable. Sooner or later, Trump would become so frustrated with the lack of progress toward denuclearization that the name-calling and threats would begin again, so the argument goes. But this may underestimate Trump’s ability to gaslight his supporters, his refusal to concede defeat, and everyone else’s disinterest in upsetting a relatively stable status quo.

Trump’s North Korea diplomacy was always less about North Korea than his domestic audience. As my colleague Will Saletan astutely noted shortly after the Singapore meeting, the deal was “a con, and you’re the mark.” He simply declared the North Korea nuclear crisis to be over and then continued to act as if that was the case, repeatedly praising Kim for his friendship and dismissing the lack of progress on the nuclear issue as minor snags that would be worked out in time. His critics may grumble about him taking credit for a nuclear breakthrough that never happened, but Trump’s sales job was helped by the months of “fire and fury” and “big button” tweets. The current state of affairs is hardly ideal, but no one really wants to go back to how things were before Singapore.