Trump seems to have been outfoxed in Singapore

U.S. President Donald Trump walks with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un after lunch at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) SGPA143
U.S. President Donald Trump walks with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un after lunch at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) SGPA143
Published June 12 2018
Updated June 12 2018

It sure looks as if President Trump was hoodwinked in Singapore.

Trump made a huge concession ó the suspension of military exercises with South Korea. Thatís on top of the broader concession of the summit meeting itself, security guarantees he gave North Korea and the legitimacy that the summit provides his counterpart, Kim Jong Un.

Within North Korea, the "very special bond" that Trump claimed to have formed with Kim will be portrayed this way: Kim forced the American president, through his nuclear and missile tests, to accept North Korea as a nuclear equal, to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and to cancel war games with South Korea that the North has protested for decades.

In exchange for these concessions, Trump seems to have won astonishingly little. In a joint statement, Kim merely "reaffirmed" the same commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

"They were willing to de-nuke," Trump crowed at his news conference. Trump seemed to believe he had achieved some remarkable agreement, but the concessions were all his own.

The most remarkable aspect of the joint statement was what it didnít contain. There was nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programs, nothing about destroying intercontinental ballistic missiles, nothing about allowing inspectors to return to nuclear sites, nothing about North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear program, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.

Kim seems to have completely out-negotiated Trump, and itís scary that Trump doesnít seem to realize this. For now, Trump has much less to show than past negotiators who hammered out deals with North Korea like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which completely froze the countryís plutonium program with a rigorous monitoring system.

Trump made a big deal in his news conference about recovering the remains of American soldiers from the Korean War, but this is nothing new. Back in 1989, on my first trip to North Korea, officials made similar pledges about returning remains, and indeed, North Korea has returned some over the years. Itís not clear how many remain.

Trump claimed an "excellent relationship" with Kim, and it certainly is better for the two leaders to be exchanging compliments rather than missiles. In a sense, Trump has eased the tensions that he himself created when he threatened last fall to "totally destroy" North Korea. Iím just not sure a leader should get credit for defusing a crisis that he himself created.

Thereís still plenty we donít know and lots of uncertainty about the future. But for now, the bottom line is that thereís no indication that North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons, and Trump didnít achieve anything remotely as good as the Iran nuclear deal, which led Iran to eliminate 98 percent of its enriched uranium.

There was also something frankly weird about an American president savaging Canadaís prime minister one day and then embracing the leader of the most totalitarian country in the world.

In an interview with Voice of America, Trump said "I like him" and added: "Heís smart, loves his people, he loves his country."

Trump praised Kim in the news conference and, astonishingly, even adopted North Korean positions as his own, saying that the United States military exercises in the region are "provocative." Thatís a standard North Korean propaganda line. Likewise, Trump acknowledged that human rights in North Korea constituted a "rough situation," but "itís rough in a lot of places, by the way." (Note that a 2014 United Nations report stated that North Korean human rights violations do "not have any parallel in the contemporary world.")

Incredibly, Trump told Voice of America that he had this message for the North Korean people: "I think you have somebody that has a great feeling for them. He wants to do right by them and we got along really well." Itís breathtaking to see an American president emerge as a spokesman for the dictator of North Korea.

One can argue that my perspective is too narrow: That what counts in a broader sense is that the risk of war is much less today than it was a year ago, and North Korea has at least stopped its nuclear tests and missile tests.Of all the things that could have gone badly wrong in a Trump administration, a "bloody nose" strike on North Korea leading to a nuclear war was perhaps the most terrifying. For now at least, Trump seems to have been snookered into the same kind of deeply frustrating diplomatic process with North Korea that he has complained about, but that is far better than war.

Even so, itís still bewildering how much Trump gave and how little he got. The cancellation of military exercises will raise questions among our allies, such as Japan, about Americaís commitment to those allies.

In January 2017, Trump proclaimed in a tweet: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It wonít happen!" But in fact it appears to have happened on Trumpís watch, and nothing in the Singapore summit seems to have changed that.

All this is to say that Kim Jong Un proved the more able negotiator. North Korean government officials are very savvy and shrewd, and they were counseled by one of the smartest Trump handlers of all, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. My guess is that Kim flattered Trump, as Moon has, and that Trump simply didnít realize how little he was getting.

Whatever our politics, we should all want Trump to succeed in reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and itís good to see that he now supports engagement rather than military options. There will be further negotiations, and these may actually freeze plutonium production and destroy missiles. But at least in the first round, Trump seems to have been snookered.

Contact Nicholas Kristof at, or by mail at the New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.