Kim Jong-un “won” the Singapore summit. He initiated and dominated every step of the process and got more than he gave — vague hints at denuclearization in exchange for ending joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Washington and Pyongyang, however, are playing different games. We suppose it’s about nuclear threats, but for Kim it’s about North Korea’s status and freedom from Chinese tutelage.

The clever Kim used President Trump’s ignorant vanity to counterbalance an overbearing China. Kim gained his initial objectives but longer term undermines his family dictatorship. Opening up a hermit kingdom destabilizes it.

The feel-good summit will be judged by substantive second and third steps, which must include verification, unmentioned in the communique. It was an effective icebreaker, considering that for a year Trump and Kim played roller-coaster diplomacy, alternating between threatening and conciliatory, which could have spun out of control. The fiery rhetoric was the collision of two grandstanding personalities using scare tactics. Unlike Trump’s, however, Kim’s volatility is carefully calculated.

The big question: Will North Korea really give up its nuclear program or just pause and conceal it? Secretary of State Pompeo insists on “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization, but Trump mentions that this could happen in stages. Trump could end up living with NorK’s nukes.

A timeline: On Jan. 1, Kim’s New Year’s speech signaled he would like to participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea. South Korean President Moon, a soft-liner dedicated to improving relations, saw an opening and invited joint participation in the February games.

They also restored a hotline and resumed talks, relieving years of North Korea’s hostility that threatened to destroy Seoul, which is within North Korean artillery range. On March 5, North and South Korean chiefs agreed to meet, which they did, joyously, on April 27. South Korean diplomats had informed Trump May 6 and conveyed Kim’s invitation to meet with Trump, who immediately accepted. Trump prepared little, relying on personal “feel.”

Mike Pompeo met with Kim twice and returned (too) enthusiastic. Trump proclaimed the summit was on, ignoring expert warnings that Kim would never denuclearize. North Korea has pursued nukes for decades, ostensibly to deter U.S. attack. Pyongyang’s newly proclaimed readiness to denuclearize — a term not yet defined — yielded them results.







Long-term hawk John Bolton’s recent arrival as Trump’s third national security advisor is puzzling. He earlier denounced a Kim con but was too late to change Trump’s mind. He was in Singapore but said nothing. Let’s see if he lasts longer than the first two.

North Korea is opaque, but its national interests are intelligible. Kim mistrusts China and has killed several pro-Beijing relatives and officials. Just appearing with the American president gains Kim stature. Using America to counterbalance China, he gets room to maneuver. Kim will be no one’s puppet and to this end also cultivates South Korea, Russia and Iran.

Nixon’s rapprochement let China balance Soviet power; now North Korea does the same. Kim’s motive is chiefly nationalistic independence, to which nukes contribute. Covertly, he may try to keep his nukes and rockets. North Korea is proud of its ability to fool outside inspectors.

Bolton’s touting of the “Libya model” supposedly frightened Pyongyang that America seeks their overthrow. Dubious. In 2003, after the U.S. toppled Saddam, Gaddafi dropped nuclear tinkering and got Western sanctions lifted. In 2011, when domestic anti-Gaddafi forces overthrew him with British, French and U.S. help, nukes would not have saved him.

Another disanalogy: In 1989, South Africa dropped its nuclear program — probably developed with Israel — and dismantled six devices. Pretoria realized that nukes are worthless against mass resistance and guerrillas.

We overfocus on nuclear weapons, which are evil but almost perfectly unusable. Nuclear war would turn the Korean peninsula into an insula, something Pyongyang understands. For them, nukes bring prestige and respect and maybe even stability, as they bolster deterrence. Many in Washington justly fear a replay of previous North Korean deceptions that got concessions while they kept building nukes. That could easily happen again, making Trump look like a sucker who got played.

As George Will recently pointed out, any country that wants nukes can build them. We can do little to stop them. And nukes should not govern every step of U.S. policy. China tested its first bomb in 1964, but Nixon put out feelers to Beijing in 1969 and visited in 1972. Nixon was less concerned with nukes than with balancing China against Russia.

The summit could lead to a treaty ending the 1950-53 Korean War, which would cost us nothing. Rapid North Korean economic growth would expose citizens to a richer, freer outside world, amplifying domestic discontent and loosening controls. Good.

Bringing North Korea out of isolation and separating it from China is a feasible U.S. goal. It’s the strategy that won us the Cold War. Trump may have — perhaps inadvertently — triggered this process with North Korea. Now, can he repair relations with Canada?