President Donald Trump and North Korea’s “chairman” Kim Jong-un met in Singapore. Their unlikely, on-off-on summit simultaneously changed everything—and nothing.
Their time together was short, little more than five hours. Nevertheless, the president tells us, Kim is “very smart,” “very talented” and “loves his country very much.” One wonders if President Trump, George W. Bush redux, peered into the Korean leader’s soul and saw something warm and fuzzy. After all, said the president, they had developed a “special bond” and formed an “excellent relationship.” Just think of the connection the two men might have made had they spent an entire day together!
Proving that it is not only the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) which turns hyperbole into an art form, the two leaders declared that “the US-DPRK summit—the first in history—was an epochal event of great significance.” Unlike those past South–North Korean summits, which dissolved in the mists of time. What could better encapsulate the importance of the current proceedings than a tearful Dennis Rodman lauding the meeting between his “special friend” and America’s president? Surely that made the event epochal, if nothing else.
Although the summit is an inevitable target for snark, it nevertheless was a positive development. Most importantly, the talks were a welcome change from the hostile posturing and war threats which dominated relations between the two governments last year. Instead of insulting one another, the two leaders committed to peaceful cooperation and denuclearization.
Furthermore, it will be much harder for President Trump to again threaten military action, which could trigger a full-scale Second Korean War. Sen. Lindsey Graham might believe that such a conflict would be no big deal since it would be “over there,” but that would offer cold comfort to South Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese, whose nations could end up battle zones—as well as North Koreans—who should not be needlessly sacrificed because of their government’s policies. Moreover, plenty of Americans, military personnel in combat as well as civilians caught in the crossfire, likely would die in any conflict. Launching attacks in the hope that everything would work out just right would be playing a fearsome geopolitical game of chicken with potentially millions of lives at stake.
Because of the summit, South Koreans, whose attitude toward the North Korean dictator has changed dramatically, would be in no mood to risk pyrotechnics launched by Washington against a North which no longer looked so threatening. And how for the president to explain to the American people that aggressive war must be launched against someone he not long before embraced? Especially if Kim was playing the role of peacenik, no longer threatening to turn cities and countries into lakes of fire?
The meeting yielded some other benefits. For instance, China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping appeared discomfited by the possibility of being excluded from negotiations which could reorder Northeast Asia. The summit might also have exposed some fault lines in the DPRK: shortly before the meeting Kim replaced three top military leaders. Since taking power he has regularly shuffled the security leadership, but the mass removal was unusual.
Still, even optimists must find the summit’s outcome surprisingly thin. The joint statement was short and mostly rehashed previous promises, without detailing implementation. The president said that “some things were agreed and not reflected in the agreement,” but presumably anything important deserved formal recognition.
For instance, presumably the North will maintain its freeze on missile and nuclear testing. It appears that the United States may have informally agreed in turn to end military exercises, which the president said would be suspended so long as negotiations were ongoing. That’s actually a good trade for the United States, but the president apparently sought to deflect domestic opposition by keeping the deal off the books, so to speak. However, fudging commitments risks undermining denuclearization.
Ironically, the day before the summit Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed previous agreements: “Many presidents previously have signed off on pieces of paper only to find that the North Koreans either didn’t promise what we thought they had, or actually reneged on those promises.” In this case Kim simply didn’t promise much of anything. When asked how his piece of paper was different from signed by past presidents, President Trump responded: “well, you have a different administration. You have a different president. You have a different secretary of state. You have people that are—you know, it’s very important to them. And we get it done.”
That obviously remains to be seen.
In fact, the United States gave up nothing of substance to get Kim to sign the statement. The North sacrificed little in return: the release of three prisoners who were more useful freed and destruction of a nuclear test site of dubious value. On a personal level Kim has gained the most, dramatically stepping onto the international stage, meeting the U.S. president as an equal, holding two summits each with China’s and South Korea’s leaders, and invited to visit Russia. Still, sampling life among the great and powerful might encourage him to stake his place by making future concessions. However, the meeting will prove “epochal” only if the general commitments are given effect.