Two Years After Trump-Kim Meeting, Little to Show for Personal Diplomacy

By David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun

North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is far larger than it was when President Trump and Kim Jong-un of North Korea first met.

President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, during a meeting last year on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.
President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, during a meeting last year on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The timing was hardly coincidental when North Korea’s foreign minister declared on Friday that hopes for finding peace with South Korea and its protector, the United States, “faded away into a dark nightmare,” and that talking with President Trump had given way to focusing on a more “reliable force to cope with the long-term military threats from the U.S.”

It was exactly two years ago that Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un met in Singapore, the first American president to meet face-to-face with a North Korean leader in nearly 70 years of war, uneasy armistice and nuclear standoff. At a news conference that day, Mr. Trump insisted he was the first president ever to negotiate true disarmament, which he predicted would begin imminently.

That bold initiative, once considered Mr. Trump’s signature foreign policy move, is barely mentioned in a White House overwhelmed with other crises. Two years after he enthusiastically declared on Twitter that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” classified assessments and experts outside government conclude that the country’s arsenal is far larger than it was when the leaders held the historic meeting, the first of three. The estimates vary, but most conclude the North has amassed enough fuel for about 20 nuclear weapons in the time since the two men strolled through a garden in Singapore for the ultimate post-Cold War photo opportunity.

“I think he’s going to do these things,” the president told reporters that day. “I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

How it went wrong is a case study in the risks of overrelying on leader-to-leader diplomacy, especially with a president who dove into one of the world’s knottiest problems with little preparation. For a while, Mr. Trump answered every question about the slowness of progress the same way: that he still enjoyed a “great relationship” with Mr. Kim, and that the United States would have been at war with the North by now had he not intervened.

Maybe so. But the two countries have dug in deeper than ever, with the United States episodically tightening sanctions as North Korea opened new channels with China and Russia to evade them. At the same time, the North never slowed enriching uranium or working on its fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

What they have avoided are any launches of missiles that could reach the United States, or new nuclear tests. Both countries are struggling, in very different ways, with coronavirus and the economic damage. And now, neither seems willing to risk an outright confrontation.

“Trump has told himself this was a win, and so has Kim,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Trump keeps repeating, ‘There wasn’t a war.’”

“For Kim Jong-un it was also a win because he is able to take the air out of the maximum pressure campaign” to crush the country economically, he said, “while he is still expanding his missile and nuclear force.”

Mr. Trump’s initiative was widely praised, at first. After a quarter-century of fruitless negotiations at lower levels, a president-to-president summit seemed refreshing. But while the meeting had fabulous theatrics, the specifics were missing and the agreement was ridden with ambiguity and loopholes.

So when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to obtain a list of the North’s nuclear facilities as a first step toward turning over weapons, Mr. Kim accused Mr. Pompeo of seeking a “target list” for American missile attacks. “I don’t need a target list,” Mr. Pompeo responded, making clear he already had one. He wanted to make sure, he said, that the North was coming clean.

The list never arrived. Subsequent talks quickly stalled over how to enforce a vaguely worded agreement.

In his New Year’s speech in January 2019, Mr. Kim threatened to find a “new way” if Washington persisted with sanctions. When Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump met in Hanoi the next month, their talks collapsed over differences over when to ease sanctions, and the North’s insistence that in return it would dismantle only its aging nuclear site at Yongbyon. That would have left him with other major nuclear sites, and all his missile launching capability.

Since then, North Korea has shifted gears, expressing anger and frustration with Washington and Seoul. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea made his own visit to the North. He encouraged Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, telling them that they were a once-in-a-lifetime pair to negotiate a history-making deal.

“Kim Jong-un’s expectations for his meetings with Trump were big,” said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul. “So was his frustration when the talks collapsed.”

In May 2019, North Korea broke an 18-month hiatus in weapons tests, launching a series of mostly short-range ballistic missiles and rockets. Negotiators from both countries met in Stockholm in October but parted ways only confirming their differences. Later, North Korea said it was no longer interested in “sickening negotiations” with the United States. In December, it conducted two ground tests at its missile-engine test site to bolster what it called its “nuclear deterrent.”

On New Year’s Day this year, Mr. Kim changed tactics, telling his people not to expect any immediate easing of sanctions and to brace for a prolonged struggle against the United States by building a “self-reliant” economy. He warned that the world would witness a “new strategic weapon” and “a shocking actual action.”

So far that is bluster. There have been no new nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, no new ballistic missile submarine and no powerful submarine-launched ballistic missile known as Pukguksong-3.

Mr. Kim also left room for negotiations. “The scope and depth of bolstering our deterrent will be properly coordinated depending on the U.S. future attitude,” he said.

  • Updated June 12, 2020

    • Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Since then, Mr. Kim’s strategy appeared to follow his family’s playbook: ramp up tensions when negotiations stalled, using the standoff period to advance its nuclear and missile abilities and raising the ante for an eventual return to diplomacy. His warm letters to Mr. Trump — which the president used to show off to visitors to the Oval Office — have stopped arriving.

In his Friday statement, the North’s foreign minister, Ri Son-gwon, said, “The question is whether there will be a need to keep holding hands shaken in Singapore.” He said he expected no meaningful progress from “maintaining personal relations between our supreme leadership and the U.S. president.”

But Mr. Ri did not explicitly rule out future talks with Washington.

Meanwhile, North Korea cut off all communications lines with the South, calling Mr. Moon’s government “treacherous and cunning.”

Analysts say that while the North has a history of ramping up tensions in American election years, it knows its limits. Mr. Lee said a test of a long-range missile that could hit the United States was less likely than military provocations along its disputed western sea border with South Korea.

Mr. Kim has actually gained more than he has lost through his two-year diplomacy with Mr. Trump, said Cheon Seong-whun, a former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded research think tank in Seoul.

“His summit meetings with President Trump elevated Kim Jong-un’s global status, while buying him time to continue to advance his nuclear weapons capabilities,” Mr. Cheon said.

Without question, Mr. Kim is more desperate for Chinese help in recent months. The North’s economy, already crippled by sanctions, is expected to shrink sharply this year because of the coronavirus — by as much as 6 percent by one estimate.

But Mr. Trump may also be hesitant to risk a confrontation at a moment when he faces so many challenges at home. With Americans trying to avoid the virus, combating unemployment and demonstrating for racial justice, they are unlikely to be roused by a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal.

That could leave Mr. Trump, who promised before he took office that he would “solve” the North Korea problem, in exactly the same place his last four predecessors: facing a North Korean nuclear arsenal that may be too entrenched to dismantle.