Asia/North Korea update: June 12 2018


The Azerbaijani government on Monday showed off (via photo) its swanky new missile systems purchased from Belarus and Israel. Both acquisitions are a little surprising–the latter because there was no indication Azerbaijan was in the market for Israeli missiles, and the former because Belarus is a treaty ally of Armenia, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are, well, you know. These purchases are but the latest in the seemingly unending arms race between the two Caucasian countries and will undoubtedly be followed by some kind of Armenian weapons purchase, probably from Russia.


The Taliban are getting in their last licks against Afghan forces before their promise Eid ceasefire goes into effect later this week. Overnight they killed nine people, including the governor of Kohistan district, in an attack in Faryab province, and also attacked a district in Sar-e Pol province. In Ghazni province, a suicide attacker who was probably Taliban killed at least five Afghan police officers and wounded 26 other people.

Meanwhile, Taliban leaders are decrying a recent US attack that they say struck their radio station, also in Ghazni province, as a violation of their free speech. Seriously. US officials say that it was an Afghan air strike that targeted a broadcasting tower, not a US attack that targeted a radio station, but regardless the concept of the Taliban crying about free speech is positively surreal.


Indian authorities say that Pakistani fire across Kashmir’s line of control killed four Indian soldiers on Wednesday morning. This would seem to represent a clear violation of the two nations’ recent agreement to stop shooting at each other and resuscitate their 2003 ceasefire.


The “American Institute in Taiwan,” which acts very much as an unofficial US embassy, opened its newly renovated offices on Tuesday with a celebration attended by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and a relatively low-level US delegation headed by Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce.


Well, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met face to face in Singapore on Tuesday. It was epic. The skies parted. Mountains trembled. They invited one another to visit their respective countries. Angels Dennis Rodman wept.

Actually, to be honest, it was all pretty meh.

On the plus side, there were no temper tantrums, there was no name calling, nobody stormed out of the room to get their nuclear codes. The two men seemed to get along fine on a personal level. And yet, apart from the spectacle–which is pretty much the only thing former reality TV star Donald Trump understands–they accomplished very little of actual substance. Which seems to have been precisely the way Kim wanted it. Trump and Kim signed an agreement at the end of their summit that…well, basically reiterated what Kim had already said in his April summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which was a vague promise to pursue “complete denuclearization” without any specific discussion of how to do it or even what Kim means by “complete denuclearization.” To some degree the ambiguity probably helped the proceedings, but eventually this process is going to have to get unambiguous or else it’s not going to go anywhere. Which, again, may be what Kim wants.

The agreement Kim and Trump signed contained four key components:

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

All four have at least one thing in common: they’ve all appeared regularly in joint US-North Korea diplomatic statements going back decades. And yet, here we are. They’re also mostly so vague as to be meaningless. Establishing new relations? Joining efforts to make peace? Committing to work on denuclearization? One can only assume that they also agreed to form a committee to discuss leveraging synergies toward a more comprehensive understanding of mutual deliverables, with the goal of creating the bandwidth necessary to enable change agents in the Korean ecosystem. The fourth component is less ambivalent, but it’s also incidental to the nuclear issue, and again it’s something the two countries have talked about repeatedly over decades and yet, here we are.

For what it’s worth, Trump later said he got Kim to agree to destroy a “a major missile engine testing site.” In the process he apparently gave away US intel:

“That was not in your agreement,” Trump told reporters. “I got that after we signed the agreement. I said, ‘Do me a favor. You’ve got this missile engine testing site. We know where it is because of the heat.’ It’s incredible the equipment we have, to be honest with you. I said, ‘Can you close it up?’ He’s going to close it up.”

Honestly he is just impossibly stupid. Anyway nobody seems to know which test site Trump is talking about or whether it’s even one the North Koreans were still using when they suspended missile testing. So good job on that one, sir.

At the end of the day, after spending years slagging both the Iran nuclear deal and previous administrations’ efforts to negotiate with North Korea, Trump reached–and then heavily praised himself for reaching–an agreement that achieved far less than the former and pretty much the same as the latter. Only those past presidents didn’t have to meet with North Korea’s leader face to face in a pompous international sideshow to get there. Trump did. And that matters–the summit itself was a huge goal for Kim. The image of him shaking hands with the President of the United States, being treated as an equal, the US and North Korean flags standing side by side behind them, will be phenomenally good for Kim domestically, and it buys him a lot of leeway internationally. It’s going to be hard for Trump to turn the world against North Korea after everybody’s seen those images. Hell, it’s going to be hard for Trump himself to admit failure and reverse policy on North Korea after he’s gotten such a thrill out of this whole endeavor.

Yep, that’s the photo (Wikimedia)

Of course, Trump seems to think the summit was good politics for him as well, and frankly his cult followers will swoon over literally anything he does. That’s presumably why he had his team put together this absolutely bizarre movie trailer-like thing about the meeting:

What the fuck did I just watch? Trump’s people insist that the video was intended to play to Kim’s ego, but come on. We’ve all been watching this unfolding fiasco of a presidency for the past 16 months, we know who the real narcissist is.

We also need to consider the things that weren’t on the table on Tuesday. North Korea’s web of illicit fundraising tools? Not discussed. North Korea’s absolutely horrendous human rights record? Out of the question. Feel free to insert your own hypocrisy joke about our own human rights record here, and that’s not wrong, but ignoring that issue when it comes to North Korea is a new low even for the US. But it’s not particularly surprising coming from Donald Trump.

So there’s a lot to criticize here. But maybe it doesn’t matter, because the bottom line is that we’re all a little further away from a nuclear war in East Asia than we were, say, eight months ago. Does Trump get credit for that? Of course not, because he’s the one who put us in that situation in the first place. Could things change quickly and put us back in danger? Of course…though, again, Trump is going to be slow to reverse himself and admit his big diplomatic adventure was a bust. But the situation could certainly be worse. I get that’s the lowest possible bar, but why would you hold Donald Trump to anything else? To people who are disappointed at Tuesday’s outcome, I would say I understand, but why did you expect any more than this from this president? To people who are angry that yesterday even happened, again I understand, but given that we can’t go back and change the outcome of the 2016 election or convince Trump to give up his Twitter account in December 2016, what would you have preferred? With this president, “there’ll be no war today” might be the best we can do.

Ultimately, the success or failure of Tuesday’s summit will be determined in the months and years to come. The US and North Korea have been here before and it’s come to naught. Maybe it won’t this time. There’s always that chance. But there’s no reason to believe that this president, this administration can actually close the deal. On the plus side, beyond the optics Trump really didn’t give up anythi–uh, well, now North Korea is saying he agreed to a phased denuclearization process, with progressive sanctions relief for North Korea along the way. That’s a pretty huge concession for basically nothing in return, if it’s true and not just North Korean spin. And there’s also his South Korean giveaway–see below. I suspect the best we can hope for is that Trump leaves North Korea alone now and we all skate through to the next administration without raining fire and fury down on anybody. Granted, that’s also probably unrealistic.


Until this phased denuclearization thing broke, the biggest tangible development to come out of Singapore was Trump’s announcement that he’s suspending joint US-South Korean military exercises. Kim and his predecessors have consistently demanded an end to those exercises, so that’s a massive concession to North Korea (and to China, for that matter), in return for which President Deals got…nothing. No, wait, he got…the suspension of joint US-South Korean military exercises, which apparently Trump doesn’t like either:

While sanctions will remain in place for now, Kim did extract one major concession from Trump. “We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money,” Trump said, referring to the joint U.S.–South Korean military exercises that North Korea has long objected to. “Unless and until we see the future negotiations not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.”

Trump’s announcement, and the insulting matter in which he characterized the US-South Korea military alliance, managed to catch South Korea completely off-guard, and that’s not a good thing. South Korea is both an ally and at much greater risk from North Korea than the United States is, so Trump’s “America First” bullshit is particularly grating here. Protecting US interests in one thing, selling out allies is another. It also apparently caught Trump’s own Defense Department off guard. Which means he probably just blurted it out unplanned, or agreed to it after Kim brought it up. But he’s very keen to see cost savings from all the air travel US planes won’t be doing now:

“We fly in bombers from Guam,” Mr. Trump said. “I said it when I first started, I said, ‘Where do the bombers come from? Guam. Nearby.’ I said ‘Oh great, nearby, where is nearby?’ Six and a half hours. Six and a half hours. That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam.”

“I know a lot about airplanes,” Mr. Trump added. “It’s very expensive. I didn’t like it. What I did say is and I think it is very provocative.”

“‘I know a lot about airplanes,’ Mr. Trump added.” Later Trump’s own vice president allegedly contradicted him and there was speculation that he didn’t mean to say what he actually said. Like I started to say above, the best we can hope for from this presidency is that human civilization survives it.

Nevertheless, it seems President Moon was OK with how things turned out–at least as a first step:


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe was a little blunter than Moon but his reaction to the summit is largely the same: it’s a start. Abe was hoping for two things from this meeting: one, not to get sold out by Trump, and two, for Trump to bring up the spate of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. The former is a little iffy at this point, but Trump apparently did bring up the latter and got nowhere with it.

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