Last fall, China proposed what it called a “double freeze” to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Under their plan, the United States would end defensive military exercises with its South Korean and Japanese allies; in turn, North Korea would end its missile and nuclear tests, but be able to keep its nuclear arsenal. The Trump administration immediately rejected the idea, with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley telling the Security Council that it was “insulting.”
"When a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and an [intercontinental ballistic missile] pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard," Haley said. "No one would do that. We certainly won't."
We just did.
The Chinese policy that we rejected back in September is American policy today. The joint military exercises that the Pentagon has long considered essential to deterrence, that the North Koreans attacked as “provocative,” are now described by the president himself as “provocative,” and also not worth the expense.
South Korea and Japan were neither consulted nor even notified of that dramatic change in position. In comments in Singapore, Trump then went even further, reiterating his longer-term intention to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea altogether, which would represent a gift of enormous proportions to North Korea and China.
And in return we get ... well, pretty much nothing.
True, in the joint communique signed in Singapore, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un did make “a firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a process that President Trump said would begin “very quickly” and “virtually immediately.” Notably, Kim made no such commitment to moving quickly.
If it were true that the North Koreans intend to act quickly, as Trump claims, they should have been willing to agree to some sort of timetable by which their sincerity could be judged. In fact, it would have been gross malpractice for American negotiators not to press hard for such a schedule, so from its absence we can gauge a lot about North Korea’s real posture.
And it’s not just a timetable that’s missing: The agreement says nothing about pretty much everything. For example, would North Korea at least end their ongoing enrichment of nuclear material from which their bombs are compiled, the natural first step forward? No.
Would they surrender at least part of their stockpile of already processed material? Their warheads? Would they mothball their nuke plants? What about verification, which would have to be considerably more intrusive than that grudgingly accepted by Iran? The agreement says nothing about any of it.
So we’ll see. “I may be wrong,” as Trump himself acknowledged in a rare bout of candor. “I may stand before you in six months and say ‘I was wrong.’ I don’t know whether I’d ever admit that. I’ll find some kind of excuse.”
Unfortunately, the main message has already been sent and received, by allies and foes alike. The fact that Trump considers joint military exercises too expensive tells the world how little he is committed to the defense of our allies. The fact that he is openly contemplating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea tells all of eastern Asia that the United States can no longer be trusted as the regional counterweight to China.
In fact, everywhere you look, you see Trump performing a diplomatic moonwalk, creating the impression of forward, aggressive motion while in reality retreating from commitments and alliances through which the U.S. has long projected power. It is happening in Europe with NATO, it is happening in the Middle East, and it is happening on the Korean Peninsula.
Bluster but retreat, bluster but retreat.