America, N Korea & Guam: how far we’ve come

President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un walk from their lunch at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Use via

For the DPRK, push may just have come to shove

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk off after a signing ceremony during a meeting on Sentosa Island on June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Use via

Guam — Tuesday’s historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore represents a dramatic reversal of nuclear era brinksmanship that put the United States Territory of Guam directly in the DPRK’s crosshairs as recently as August.

The president walks away from the meeting calling for an end to annual joint military exercises between the US and South Korea while expressing a desire to remove up to 28,500 US troops now stationed in South Korea.

Here’s a recap of how relations have crossed the threshold from the edge of war to the cusp of diplomatic normalcy within ten months.

President Trump approached his meeting with North Korean Supreme Leader King Jong Un undoubtedly repeating a mantra of American Manifest Destiny: “I alone can fix it.” His commonly referred-to quotation seemed appropriate for the cult of personality dominating bilateral relations.

The images pouring out of Tuesday’s summit suggested a mutual affinity between the two leaders. All smiles and handshakes, it seems these two demagogues get each other. And the warmth of their historic meeting raises hopes worldwide that a deal can be reached for conditional denuclearization of North Korea and a prolonged peace to follow.

So how did we get here? It’s an astonishing demonstration of the art of the possible. The rancor between America and North Korea had grown so bad since the Korean War that the Dear Leader Kim threatened to launch ballistic missiles at Guam to weaken America’s defensive posture late last summer. Trump threatened in return a “fire and fury” worse than America’s carpet bombing of North Korea in the 1950s.

It was the stuff of dark comedy—almost funny if the consequences weren’t so grave. Kim calling Trump a senile dotard. Trump mocking Kim as the suicidal “Rocket Man” he promised to destroy, in a speech before the United Nations.

The thaw began in February, when North and South Korea marched together in the winter Olympics. Outgoing CIA Chief Mike Pompeo followed up in April with a secret diplomatic trip to Pyongyang to test the temperature for North Korean nuclear de-escalation and a rapprochement with the US. By late April Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in were hugging at the DMZ. In May the Democratic People’s Republic released three Korean American prisoners. Then came a dramatic series of on-again-off-again announcements leading to Tuesday’s summit.

The fruit of these discussions is anyone’s guess. But one thing Trump seems to understand is the Kim regime’s temperament. The threats grow evermore dramatic when North Korea fails to get what it craves: relevance and respect among the world’s most powerful nations. Yet in the end, North Korea knows all too well that America plays hardball with the recalcitrant once diplomacy is exhausted.