“We’re in a better place today than we were a year ago,” Antony J. Blinken, who was deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, said after the meeting ended. It was worth trying the top-down approach to dealing with Mr. Kim, he went on, because the alternative path has failed repeatedly.
The first test of that theory may come as soon as next week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is supposed to begin translating the vague set of commitments signed on Tuesday into something that resembles a disarmament plan.
While the White House used to describe those moves as rapid, Mr. Pompeo has privately acknowledged to aides and friends that this will be a long process. He insists, as Mr. Trump did on Tuesday, that the United States will not let up on sanctions against the North until the disarmament process is well underway in order to maintain leverage.
But the reality is more complicated.
The United States has little trade with North Korea that it can impose sanctions on. And China and Russia are already letting up the pressure because, in their view, as long as Mr. Kim has Mr. Trump engage in diplomacy, the president cannot threaten fire, fury or a willingness to use what he once called the “bigger button” on his desk.
“The summit has changed the psychology of the nuclear crisis and thereby pushed off the prospect of preventive U.S. military action,” said Robert Litwak, a Wilson Center scholar who published a study of negotiating with North Korea. But he warned that Mr. Trump is not walking into the kind of negotiation he thinks he is.
“The upcoming negotiations will be arms control to constrain the North Korean program, not disarmament to eliminate it,” Mr. Litwak said.
The supreme irony, as Mr. Litwak and others noted on Tuesday, is that an effort to constrain the North’s capabilities, rather than eliminate them, has shades of the Iran deal that Mr. Trump just rejected.