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Experts cautious and skeptical on Trump-Kim summit

President Trump walked with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island on Tuesday.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
President Trump walked with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island on Tuesday.

Experts at Boston-area universities Tuesday reacted both cautiously and skeptically to President Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying it hadn’t produced much of substance and even that Kim had come away the winner.

“It was a great success for North Korea,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University who is an expert on Korea.

He said the North Koreans are expert at staging two-act plays, with the “first act, provocation, second act, placation.”


After a banner year of testing bombs and ballistic missiles, he said, Kim Jong Un saw it as “the perfect time to change the tune to a happier, romantic melody and get the US to ease off, relax sanctions, so he can buy more time and money with which to further advance his missile and nuclear capabilities, while coming across as a reasonable, reform-minded leader.

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“Trump is being played in a major way. President Trump has said in the past that all his predecessors have been played, which is true, but he’s being played at another level,” he said.

He said Trump had “squandered US prestige” by meeting with Kim.

Similar overtures had been made by Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, in 2000 to leaders in the region and US President Bill Clinton, he said, but North Korea continued with its quest to become a nuclear power.

Robert S. Ross, a Boston College professor who is an expert on East Asian security and US-China relations, said, “The first question is whether Donald Trump achieved a negotiating success. There the clear answer is no.”


“He got nothing from North Korea that South Korean President Moon didn’t get earlier. He got no commitments. He simply got a long-term, open-ended commitment to denuclearization with no time frame, no commitment to a step-by-step process, no understanding of what ‘complete denuclearization’ means, and no commitment from North Korea that it would be verifiable,” Ross said.

“So basically, this was a meet-and-greet. For all of President Trump’s insistence that he is a great negotiator . . . he got nothing.”

He also criticized Trump’s stunning announcement that he was halting annual US-South Korean military drills and wanted to remove the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea.

“I’d say he was overly eager to have a successful summit at the expense of South Korea’s confidence in American commitment to US-South Korean defense cooperation,” he said.

Even if Trump did not succeed as a deal maker, though, Ross said the summit could have benefits if it’s the beginning of a gradual opening of North Korea.


“America must begin the process of getting American culture, values, and capitalism into North Korea,” he said.

Andrew J. Bacevich, professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, said the event was a success simply because decorum was maintained.

“A US administration noted for being intemperate and impulsive demonstrated considerable professionalism — a pleasant surprise,” he said.

“Substantively, however, it’s too soon to say whether the event qualifies as an actual success or whether it was just a bit of encouraging theater,” he said in an e-mail.

“[Trump] appears to trust and respect Kim more than he does the prime minister of Canada. Whether Kim will return the favor by delivering on the ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization’ that the US has demanded remains to be seen. The North Korean regime does not have a track record of keeping promises, to put it mildly,” he said.

“Although a murderous dictator, Kim has displayed considerable savvy to this point. The next move is his, and it will be interesting to see what he chooses to do,” he said.

Martin Finucane can be reached at