If the US military withdraws from Korea, China will be a big loser

June 20, 2018

If the US military withdraws from Korea, China will be a big loser

by Michael Heng


Michael Heng says while Beijing has good reason to be wary of American hegemony in the region, it must realise that a US military withdrawal would encourage unwanted developments – nuclear-armed neighbours in a unified Korea and Japan.

The Kim-Trump summit in Singapore has reduced the danger of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It is good for peace in the near future and it calms stock markets. 

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At the same time, it is a big media event for Kim Jong-un. It will no doubt boost his international standing and strengthen his position at home. North Korea is the biggest winner, thanks to the calculating Kim and the disappointing Donald Trump. The immediate gain is the likely relaxation of economic sanctions against the country.

Other than these two points, one has to fall back on faith in Trump’s instinct that North Korea is earnest in denuclearisation on the Korean peninsula. He seems to have taken a sudden liking to Kim, someone he described as a “madman” after the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned during a visit to North Korea.

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Donald Trump–America’s Showman has forgotten that, in politics, interests are more decisive than personal relationships

Somehow, Trump has forgotten that, in politics, interests are more decisive than personal relationships. But that is understandable as he is more a showman than a politician.

The joint declaration merely reaffirms the same commitment to denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula that North Korea has repeatedly made since 1992.

Watch: What’s in the Trump-Kim agreement


As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed, there was “nothing about North Korea freezing plutonium and uranium programmes, 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 programme, nothing about a timetable, nothing about verification, not even any clear pledge to permanently halt testing of nuclear weapons or long-range missiles”.

If this is not disturbing enough, Trump announced after the summit that he wants to remove all US troops from South Korea, a major strategic move which the Pentagon had rejected outright for years despite Pyongyang’s repeated demands. Trump’s seemingly offhand announcement has perplexed American allies, particularly South Korea and Japan, and confused its own military establishment.

Why is the announcement so disturbing? Consider the following scenario. Supreme Leader Kim, aware that Trump’s current term of office would end in 2½ years, could embark on a cosmetic programme of denuclearisation, obliging Trump to respond by withdrawing the US military presence in South Korea.

Meanwhile, Trump’s successor could be boxed in by his vague agreement with Kim.

Watch: US and South Korea conduct joint military drills in September last year


The retreat of US military forces would set alarm bells ringing in Japan. Political realities are more important than promises and treaties. If Japan were threatened, what should Tokyo do? The responsible thing would be to rely on itself, to build up its military and create a home-grown nuclear umbrella.

The biggest loser in the new situation would be South Korea. A nuclear-armed North Korea would easily impose demands on a South Korea without American military protection. The demands could range from reunification on Pyongyang’s terms to generous economic assistance from Seoul.

A US departure from South Korea would weaken South Korea to the extent that it may have to give in to the terms dictated by North Korea on reunification. A reunified Korea may well turn out to be a second reunified Vietnam, but with nuclear warheads. Taking either a short or long view of history, there is very little reason to believe that such a Korea would prove to be a friendly neighbour to China.

Therefore, another big loser would be China, North Korea’s supposedly good friend. If Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, could at times prove unpredictable for Beijing, the current supreme leader has exhibited features of a 21st-century Frankenstein. His modus operandi has often proved to be beyond the understanding of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a seasoned world-class political player.


It is an open secret that there has been no real fraternal relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea, as evidenced by the years of estrangement.

The recent summit in Singapore has not produced any substantive conditions to inspire real confidence that the North Korean leader will follow through on his claimed denuclearisation programme. North Korea’s failure to dismantle its nuclear weapons would represent a persistent nuclear threat on China’s doorstep. However, this is contrary to the view expressed by retired US Navy admiral James Stavridis, in a Bloomberg article: “For Beijing, the best outcome would be an agreed framework that puts off any actual relinquishment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons into the distant future. This will ensure the long-term survival of the Kim regime and the continuation of a divided peninsula.”

Added to this is the possibility of the emergence of Japan as a nuclear power in the wake of a US military withdrawal from South Korea. Japan, with its remarkable technological base, can rebuild its military to beyond its proclaimed self-defence needs and produce more deadly warheads and powerful delivery systems than North Korea within a short period,

“A series of missteps in the wake of the Singapore summit could lead to northeast Asia degenerating into a powder keg. That is certainly not in the interests of China and the rest of Asia, or, for that matter, in the interests of world peace.”–Michael Heng

Beijing is right to be wary of the hegemonic schemes of Uncle Sam, especially in view of the latter’s track record during the cold war period. But that does not mean a total US military withdrawal from South Korea and Japan would always be in China’s best interests.

The fact of the matter is that US hegemony has produced two benign by-products for China. Number one is that Japan has stuck very close to Article 9 of its constitution and remains non-nuclear. Number two is that the US foiled attempts by Chiang Kai-shek to build nuclear bombs in Taiwan.

The Chinese have a wise saying, ju an si wei, which means to be on guard against possible dangers in times of peace. A series of missteps in the wake of the Singapore summit could lead to northeast Asia degenerating into a powder keg. That is certainly not in the interests of China and the rest of Asia, or, for that matter, in the interests of world peace.

Michael Heng is a retired professor who held academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia

North Korea talks deepen Japan’s dilemma

June 20, 2018

North Korea talks deepen Japan’s dilemma

While Trump and Kim warm up ties, Tokyo is left in the cold




Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump at their joint news conference at the White House in Washington on June 7   © Reuters

Japan was clearly marginalized in the run-up to and during the June 12 summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders in Singapore. The dynamics suggest that Tokyo will not play any significant role in the follow-up negotiations.

There is no way to obfuscate these hard facts with any political or diplomatic sleight of hand. President Donald Trump promised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japanese interests in the region would not be ignored. Such interests were possibly mentioned in the Trump-Kim dialogue. But if so, with what degree of priority or weight?

Regardless, Japan should not just wring its hands in futile despair. Instead, Tokyo should use the momentum and debate generated by the Trump-Kim talks as an opportunity to build a new national consensus on some fundamental questions

The long-running national angst over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals is of great political and emotional importance in Japan. But it is of no consequence to the U.S. Trump has generally dismissed human rights concerns that have dogged North Korea’s regime. American security appears to be his sole focus.

Nor are Japanese abductees of concern to any other country. Even South Korea, which also has abductees being held in North Korea, is uninterested.

It is politically impossible for Japan to entirely give up on the abductees. But the issue should not be allowed to dominate Japanese strategic calculations. East Asia is on the cusp of a major strategic shift. There is no room for political sentimentality.

At present, Japan does not figure highly in North Korean calculations. Pyongyang clearly believes that if it can deal directly with the U.S. and South Korea, Japan will have no choice but to follow or be isolated.

Indeed, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met with Trump, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has dispatched Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s official head of state, to Moscow.

Tokyo’s immediate priority should be to secure a meeting between Abe and Kim. The latter is reported to be willing to meet Abe.

If such a meeting comes about — which is not to be taken for granted — giving too much prominence to abductees will only hand the initiative to Kim. Abe will be reduced to the position of supplicant: asking for a favor and promising aid if the favor is granted.

Aid to North Korea will not give Japan leverage. South Korea under Moon is eager to promote economic ties with the North, as was clear in the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration’s endorsement of North-South declarations adopted in 2000 and 2007. The latter spells out North-South economic cooperation in detail. In any case, if the U.S.-North Korean talks progress, Japan may be compelled to provide aid to the North.

After the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, North Korea has been recognized as a de facto nuclear weapon state and a legitimate interlocutor of the U.S. At present, Japan has no real option but to rely on American leave and favor.

This is not a sustainable position for a major country. Tokyo’s longer-term order of business should be to broaden its options within the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

This would not require any loosening of the alliance, which would be a disaster, not just for Japan but for all of East Asia. In regional eyes, the fundamental and irreplaceable purpose of the U.S.-Japan alliance is to anchor the U.S. in East Asia. No other U.S. alliance can perform this function.

Broadening options within the alliance will require a level of leadership, creativity and agility that has up to now been absent from Japanese diplomacy. It means moving away from dependency to a genuine partnership.

Abe has already taken significant steps in this direction. More needs to be done. In this effort, his drive to revise the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution to place the legal status of the Self-Defense Force on a clearer footing, while desirable, is only a distraction from the core issue.

More fundamentally, Japan needs a new consensus on the meaning of Japanese nationalism in the 21st century. This requires a national debate on issues that most Japanese do not even want to think about.

Denial is a luxury Japan can no longer afford. The choices are not between defining Japanese interests almost solely in terms of American interests, or the militaristic nationalism of the early Showa era of the early 20th century.

As long as Japan refuses to confront history squarely, the country’s extreme right will be able to occupy political space by default. This constrains Japanese strategic thinking and keeps Tokyo’s diplomatic initiatives hostage to China and South Korea.

A second fundamental issue is whether Trump’s “America First” attitude is an aberration that will pass with a new administration; or an extreme symptom of a new national mood that may subside somewhat but will persist over the long term. Wishful thinking is another luxury Japan can no longer afford.

Follow-up negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea are not going to be about complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as initially expected. That may be discussed, but the talks will really be about arms control. That is not the same thing. The focal point of future discussions will be how to maintain deterrence at lower levels of tension and less risk of miscalculation.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said that America’s main concern is to deal with Pyongyang’s long-range missiles that can directly threaten the U.S. mainland. That leaves Japan vulnerable.

Of course, Japan is already vulnerable to medium-range North Korean missiles. But if the U.S. reaches agreement on long-range missiles, it will not be a return to the status quo ante.

If the U.S. is not directly threatened by a North Korea that is now recognized as a de facto nuclear weapon state, the credibility of American extended deterrence will inevitably be questioned. In extreme circumstances, would San Francisco be sacrificed to save Tokyo?

The U.S. would undoubtedly try to reassure Japan that it will. If the Japanese people believe American reassurances only because they have no other option except to believe, that is only a form of self-delusion.

The credibility of U.S. extended deterrence over Japan will in any case be questioned by Pyongyang and, more importantly, by Beijing when China acquires a credible second-strike capability. Can a nuclear weapon state be deterred by conventional means?

Even the U.S. does not seem to think so. The 30-year old U.S.-Japan Nuclear Cooperation Agreement is unique in allowing Japan to reprocess nuclear material, a privilege the U.S. has granted to no other country. Why?

What is at stake is existential. For centuries, a central element of Japanese and Korean national identity has been refusal to accept permanent subordination in the Chinese regional order, in Japan’s case at least since the 16th century when Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having unified Japan, invaded Korea in defiance of that order.

Subordination also must mean an inexorable loosening of, and an eventual end to, the U.S.-Japan alliance. But a five-way nuclear balance in East Asia between the U.S., China, Japan, and the two Koreas would establish a stable multipolar regional order that preserves maneuver space for everyone.

South Korea and even Australia have already been openly debating their own nuclear capability in their respective alliances with the U.S. It is time for such a debate in Japan.

For Japan — the only nation that has suffered a nuclear attack — it will be a wrenchingly painful debate. But it cannot be avoided for much longer. The choice is Japan’s alone. But the outcome will determine the future of East Asia.

Bilahari Kausikan is a former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current chairman of the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore. These are his personal views.

Geo-Politics–Non-Western Eurasia rises

June10, 2018

Geo-Politics–Non-Western Eurasia rises

by Bunn Nagara@www.thestar.com.my

Sloppy US policies helped to build a growing China-Russia alliance for a full decade now. This is evident enough from the meeting rooms of the UN Security Council to the battlefields of Syria to the South China Sea and the Baltics.–Bunn Nagara

Image result for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Qingdao.

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit, in Qingdao, China on June 10, 2018.

THE week that was ended with a significant non-Western event often ignored or misunderstood by the West: the latest Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit.

The 18th annual SCO summit in the Chinese port city of Qingdao this weekend is only the fourth held in China. Beijing is relaxed about its role in a growing organisation of eight member countries, six Dialogue Partners and four observer nations – a confidence that suggests considerable clout.

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Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmon, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, walk for talks at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao in eastern China’s Shandong Province Sunday, June 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)


China and Russia are the two hulking members of a group that boasts formal parity, being the conspicuous “firsts among equals.” And as two consecutive US administrations unwittingly drive these giants closer than ever before strategically, Western attention is led astray.

Western reports track President Putin’s travel to Qingdao and the diplomatic niceties exchanged there. At the same time, Western commentators are tempted to dismiss the summit as yet another futile talk fest. Both approaches are wrong or misplaced. While Xi-Putin exchanges may not be the highlight of this year’s SCO summit, neither are they insignificant.

Sloppy US policies helped to build a growing China-Russia alliance for a full decade now. This is evident enough from the meeting rooms of the UN Security Council to the battlefields of Syria to the South China Sea and the Baltics.

The latest SCO summit reaffirms the trend but adds only marginally to it by way of atmospherics. There are more important developments visible at, if not represented by, the Qingdao summit.

It is the first SCO summit at which both India and Pakistan arrive as full members.

Beginning as the Shanghai Five in the mid-1990s, the SCO has grown steadily and now incorporates three giants – China, Russia and India – in the great Eurasian land mass where both the US and the EU have scant inputs.

With Pakistan coming in at the same time as India as an equal partner, the SCO should be free from any sub-regional turbulence within South Asia.

Turkey is also an SCO Dialogue Partner whose interest in full membership is not without broader implications for the West.

Turkey has considerable military strength and is also a member of NATO, hosting its Allied Land Command and a US air base in Izmir. However, Ankara’s years-long effort to join the EU has been snubbed by Brussels.

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Turkey may have to forego its NATO membership before SCO membership can be entertained.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has famously mulled over choosing between the EU and the SCO, reportedly preferring the latter. How would the West find a NATO member joining a non-Western group led by Russia and China?

Deep-seated discomfort would be a mild way to put a reaction in Brussels and Washington. To US policymakers, Turkey is a strategic country because of its location as well as its status as a prominent Muslim country.

Both China and Russia have sounded positive about Turkey’s prospective membership of the SCO. Nonetheless, SCO members share an understanding of sorts that Turkey may have to forego its NATO membership before SCO membership can be entertained.

However, Beijing and Moscow may be less concerned than Washington and Brussels about Turkey’s SCO membership with its NATO credentials intact. That immediately makes Turkey more comfortable to be in SCO company.

Turkey has already received what amounts to special treatment within the SCO that no other Dialogue Partner has enjoyed. Last year it was elected as Chair of the SCO’s Energy Club, a position previously enjoyed only by full members.

Erdogan has called the SCO “more powerful” than the EU, particularly in a time of Brexit. Bahrain and Qatar seek full SCO membership; Iraq, Israel, Maldives, Ukraine and Vietnam want to be Dialogue Partners; and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Syria want Observer status.

Iran already has SCO Observer status and had applied for full membership in 2008. Following the easing of UN sanctions on Tehran, China declared its support for Iran’s membership bid in 2016.

The recent US pullout from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“Iran nuclear deal”) has further prodded Tehran to “look East.” These days that means China and a China-led SCO.

Iran already trades heavily with China with myriad deals in multiple sectors. Mutual interests abound, far exceeding the basic relationship of oil and gas sales to China.

As Europe treads carefully, mindful of possible new sanctions on Iran following the US cop out, cash-rich Chinese firms take up the slack. US policy is also pushing Iran, among others, closer to China.

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Modi and Xi–A Strategic Partnership for development and progress

In preparing for Prime Minister Modi’s arrival in Qingdao on Friday, Indian Ambassador Gautam Bambawale said both countries were determined to work in close partnership and would never be split apart.

This echoed two main points already shared by Indian and Chinese leaders – that their countries are partners in development and progress, and what they have in common are greater than their differences.

All of this seems set to undo the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) that groups the US with Japan, Australia and India, all boasting a democratic system in common in a joint strategic encirclement of China. But India’s relations with China have been on the upswing for half a year now.

The day before Modi arrived in Qingdao, a Quad meeting in Singapore closed on Friday with India expressing differences with the other members. Its Ambassador to Russia Pankaj Saran said the Quad was not the same as its hopes for an inclusive “Indo-Pacific region” (IPR) that did not target any country.

He added that India wanted closer ties with Russia as well in an IPR. Just a fortnight before, Russia’s recent Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak said President Trump also wanted closer ties with Russia.

That was only a small part of the roller-coaster ride of international diplomacy in the first half of 2018.

In January Trump condemned the Taliban for a spate of attacks in Afghanistan, vowing that all talks with them were off. Until then, top US diplomats were carefully planning negotiations with the Taliban.

In March, US officials blasted Russia for allegedly arming the Taliban, which Moscow denied. The following month Nato voiced support for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to talk with the Taliban to “save the country.”

Meanwhile Trump’s ramparts of trade barriers in the direction of a trade war would decimate allies from East Asia to Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron expressed a European position in reaching out to China on climate and security issues.

By March the EU had dug in, preparing for the worst of US trade barriers while vowing retaliation. The WTO also warned Washington that it was veering towards a trade war with tariffs on steel and aluminium.

In April, China’s new Defence Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe arrived in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. Wei rubbed it in for Washington, publicly announcing that his visit was to show the US the high level of strategic cooperation between China and Russia.

Two days later the Foreign Ministers of China and Russia expressed similar sentiments. They championed negotiations and sticking to pledges while weighing in against the unilateralism of a unipolar power.

Where China has the SCO, Russia has the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

If any discomfort is felt in Washington, it is from acting as a unipolar power in an increasingly multipolar world.

Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

Read more at https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/behind-the-headlines/2018/06/10/nonwestern-eurasia-rises-where-us-policymakers-are-not-at-war-with-themselves-in-washington-they-thr/#pl8bhiuGHkVCyD5C.99

Fareed’s Take on Trump-Kim Singapore Summit

June 17, 2018

Fareed’s Take on Trump-Kim Singapore Summit:

“U.S. weakens its 70-year alliance with South Korea.”

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria


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“America will remain the world’s dominant power in the 21st century only if it is the dominant Pacific power,” the late Lee Kuan Yew often said to me. Lee, the founder of modern Singapore and one of the smartest strategic minds I have ever encountered, spoke about this issue late in life, as he worried about the breakdown of the stability that had allowed for the extraordinary global growth of the past half-century. The key, he was certain, was deep U.S. engagement in Asia, which was quickly becoming the center of global economics and power. Alas, President Trump appears to be doing everything he can to violate Lee’s dictum.

The media got it wrong. The real headline of the Trump-Kim summit — ironically held in Singapore, the city-state that Lee built — should have been: “U.S. weakens its 70-year alliance with South Korea.” The most striking elements of Trump’s initiative were not simply that he lavished praise on North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, but also that he announced the cancellation of military exercises with South Korea, adopting North Korea’s own rhetoric by calling them “provocative.”

The President must have missed his briefing. In fact, it is North Korea that provokes and threatens South Korea, as it has done since it first invaded the South in 1950. North Korea is thought to have about 1 million active-duty troops, almost twice as many as the South, and it has constructed perhaps as many as 20 tunnels to possibly mount a surprise invasion. North Korea also has more than 6,000 pieces of artillery that can reach South Korea, including some whose range is so long that they endanger 32.5 million people, more than half the country’s population, according to a study by the Rand Corp. The Defense Department estimated in 2006 that if North Korea opened artillery fire on the South, 250,000 people would be killed in Seoul alone, the Rand study notes. Of course, about a decade later, North Korea now has up to 60 nuclear bombs, complete with the missiles to deliver them. South Korea’s “war games” with the United States are necessary defensive exercises undertaken in the shadow of an aggressive adversary.

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President Donald Trump takes South  Korea for granted

Even worse, Trump signaled that he would like to end the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. He is wrong that this would save money, unless he plans to demobilize the troops — which would mean cutting the United States’ active-duty forces, the opposite of his policy. Since South Korea covers almost half the costs of U.S. troops stationed there, moving them to, say, Georgia would not be cheaper. But that’s beside the point. Through bitter experience, the United States has found that it is much better to have troops ready, battle-trained and with knowledge of the local geography rather than keeping them all in the United States, only to be sent abroad when trouble breaks out.

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A few commentators have pointed out that the big winner of the Singapore summit was the great power that was not even there: China. That’s exactly right. Consider what China has always wanted. First, the stabilization of North Korea. Until recently, there was much talk of the impending implosion of the North Korean regime. For China, this would be a nightmare, since unification would take place on South Korean terms. This would mean a large democratic state allied with Washington, housing U.S. troops right on China’s border. That nightmare looks unlikely now that the United States is promising security guarantees for North Korea and dangling aid and investment.

China’s second great desire has been to rid Asia of U.S. troops, especially from the mainland. Trump appears inclined to do this as well. After the Cold War, many Asian countries got nervous that the United States would withdraw from Asia, leaving its allies to the tender mercies of a rising China. To assure them otherwise, Joseph Nye, a top Defense Department official in the Clinton administration, formulated a report and initiative that committed the United States to maintain a forward troop presence in Asia of about 100,000. Were Trump to follow through on his impulse to withdraw troops from South Korea, the United States would fall far below that threshold.

For China, the Trump administration has been the gift that keeps on giving. Trump began his term in office by pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was created by a group of U.S. allies to stand as an alternative to the Chinese market. The partnership was a bulwark against Chinese power that could have proved attractive to other Asian countries. Now the rules of the road are being written in Asia, and they are being written in Mandarin.

Lee was right. The long game for the United States over the next few decades is how to handle the rise of China. And right now, we are quitting the field.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Singapore Summit: China is the biggest winner

June 14, 2014

The Biggest Winner at the U.S.-North Korea Summit: China

by Evan Osnos


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Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things,” President Trump told reporters in Singapore on Tuesday night, after signing a page of loose declarations with Kim Jong Un. “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.” Perhaps no truer words were spoken at the Singapore summit, where Donald Trump, with a handshake and a shrug, opened a new phase in Asia that will eventually reveal him to be either a visionary who saw a path to peace where others did not or a dupe who squandered American credibility. He announced the opening of contact with North Korea with the bonhomie of a developer at a groundbreaking: he hailed an “excellent relationship” with a “talented” counterpart, and shooed away questions about timetables and the risk of default. He made no mention of Kim’s accelerated testing of missiles and nuclear weapons, or of his own threats, via Twitter last year, to “totally destroy” North Korea. He handed off the substantive work to his Cabinet, a team that is already sharply divided between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has expressed high hopes for peace, and the national-security adviser, John Bolton, who has argued for years that North Korea cannot be trusted.

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Kim-Trump Singapore Summit

Compared with the expectations for the summit—or with previous agreements—there was much that Trump failed to get. There was no exchange of liaison offices and no pledge to improve human rights. “I do not see what can really possibly hold in this remarkably imprecise and nonbinding document,” Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University, in Seoul, said. “It is truly remarkable how Donald Trump, being in such a strong negotiating position, has managed to get so little from the North Koreans.” For Trump, the goal, apparently, was the handshake itself. In his view, cheerful patter is easy and inexpensive, and he can renounce the positive vibes on a whim, as needed. In the annals of diplomacy, though, the risks of casual declarations abound. Most apropos in this case is George W. Bush’s first official trip to Europe as President, when he was asked if he trusted Vladimir Putin, and famously replied, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him very straightforward and trustworthy—I was able to get a sense of his soul.” (Condoleezza Rice later lamented that response, writing, “We were never able to escape the perception that the President had naïvely trusted Putin and then been betrayed.”)

Trump appears to have decided that the chance of a breakthrough is worth the risk of looking naïve. “I do trust him, yeah,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, in answer to the inevitable question about Kim. “He really wants to do a great job for North Korea. He’s de-nuking the whole place, and I think he’s going to start very quickly. He really wants to do something, I think, terrific for their country.”

What Kim really wants, however, may not be what Trump has in mind. “North Korean media wrote at remarkable length about Kim Jong Un’s trip to Singapore,” Lankov told me. State cameramen made a point of filming attentive, prosperous Singaporeans, a montage that will be used to fortify Kim’s image and to promote the prospect of economic reforms. The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s major official newspaper, dedicated a large part of its front page to celebrating Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism. “The island state was praised on a scale one seldom sees in the North Korean newspapers,” Lankov added. But, in its early reports, North Korean media made conspicuously little mention of the substance of the summit, and Pyongyang gave no sign that the state is preparing its public to stop celebrating nuclear weapons as a singular achievement.

In fact, as expected, North Korea made no specific commitments about dismantling its nuclear program. In the joint statement, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—a reference to previous agreements, going back to 1992, which have not held. By far, the largest concession in the talks came from Trump, who announced his willingness to freeze joint military exercises with South Korean forces. For months, Trump’s aides described a freeze as a non-starter, but, on Tuesday, he adopted North Korea’s view that the exercises are, as he put it, “very provocative” and said that the suspension would “save us a tremendous amount of money.”

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Trump freezes joint military exercises with South Korean forces.That is no minor concession

That is no minor concession. The next round of war games with South Korea was scheduled to take place in August. After the announcement, Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Center for a New American Security, told me that joint exercises are designed to deter North Korea from attacks on the South, such as the sinking, in 2010, of the Cheonan, a naval vessel, which killed forty-six seamen. Deterrence relies on “a degree of professionalism and readiness for crisis response that can only come through military training and exercises,” he said. “If North Korea is not moving toward significant disclosure of its nuclear forces and then taking significant, verifiable steps in the direction of denuclearization, then we should resume pressure, including major exercises, by next spring.”

More surprising still, Trump raised the previously taboo prospect of withdrawing some of America’s nearly thirty thousand troops in South Korea. “I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home,” he said. That may have been improvisation. Hours earlier, Defense Secretary James Mattis had told reporters, “I don’t believe” that troops were up for negotiation. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, and usually a Trump defender, said on NBC that he would “violently disagree” with any removal of troops from South Korea.

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“Trump may have also precipitated an outcome that he does not fully grasp: by suspending military exercises, and alluding to removing troops from South Korea, he will stir doubts about the strength of America’s commitment to its allies in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. They will have no choice but to begin to reimagine America’s role in the region, and their relationships to Beijing.”–Evan Osnos

Nobody greeted the news from Singapore with more delight than China. For years, Chinese officials have urged Trump to freeze military exercises in South Korea, which Beijing regards as a threatening gesture in its neighborhood. Shortly after the announcement, the Global Times, a nationalist state newspaper in Beijing, hailed Trump’s move in an editorial headlined “End of ‘War Games’ Will Be a Big Step Forward for Peninsula.” Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me, “The Chinese are breathing a deep sigh of relief. They got what they most wanted.” She added, “And, best of all, it came out of President Trump’s mouth. The Chinese didn’t even have to rely on Kim Jong Un to do their bidding.”

Any negotiations in the months and years ahead will be fraught: the United States will need to get Kim to provide a full declaration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. International inspectors will seek to verify them. Only then can the U.S. begin to imagine dismantling them. But, more immediately, Trump may have also precipitated an outcome that he does not fully grasp: by suspending military exercises, and alluding to removing troops from South Korea, he will stir doubts about the strength of America’s commitment to its allies in Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. They will have no choice but to begin to reimagine America’s role in the region, and their relationships to Beijing. From Trump’s perspective, the encounter with Kim was an end in itself. For those who bear the consequences of his words and actions, this is just the beginning.

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  • Evan Osnos joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2008, and covers politics and foreign affairs. He is the author of “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.”