War Stories

A Win for Kim

This was a very good day for the leader of North Korea.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seated at a large desk, signing documents.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump sign documents as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right) and Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong (left) look on at the summit in Singapore on Tuesday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The grand summit turned out to be an even emptier pageant than expected.

It began with suitable drama: President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un approaching each other for the long handshake. Before the summit, Trump had said he would know whether the affair would fly or flop in the first minute. “My touch, my feel—that’s what I do,” he’d explained. The touch and feel must have been good, for one minute later, before they’d exchanged a word beyond small talk, Trump told reporters he was “honored” to be in Kim’s company and predicted their meeting would be a “tremendous success.”

Yet at the end of the day (and the summit, all told, lasted less than 12 hours), the two sides issued a joint statement that, even by the low-bar standards of such documents, was extraordinarily light on detail.

North Korea did commit “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In recent days, several specialists had said that this would mean nothing without an itemization of North Korea’s present stockpile and a timetable for its dismantling. The joint statement provided no timetable, no itemization, nor even a timetable for when Pyongyang would submit an itemization.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said prior to the meeting that Trump would insist on the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear complexes. The joint statement contained not the vaguest reference to how the disarmament would be verified.

Finally, that crucial but ambiguous phrase, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” remained undefined. Midlevel officials from both countries had been working for days to hammer out an agreement on this and other basic issues. Apparently they did not succeed, nor did the two leaders when they met face to face, nor did the somewhat larger group of top officials—including Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, White House chief of staff John Kelly, and their North Korean counterparts—when they sat across from one another at a table.

Many observers had worried about two possible scenarios for the summit: that nothing specific would be nailed down about the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and that, in the course of making security guarantees to Kim’s regime, Trump would concede too much on commitments to U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan.

Trump proved the skeptics right on the first worry, a bit less so on the second. Some had feared that Trump might sign on to a “peace treaty” ending the Korean War. (Since 1953, a cease-fire has been in place, but the combatants are still technically at war.) The concern was that such a treaty would be quickly followed by the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. The joint statement mentions “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” but nothing, for the moment, about a treaty.

Nor does it say anything about lifting economic sanctions, another issue on which critics had feared Trump might cave.

However, at a post-summit press conference, Trump said that he would suspend joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, saying that these war games are expensive and agreeing with Kim’s charge that they’re “provocative.” This was quite a concession, especially since Trump seems to have made it without first consulting South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The only concessions Kim made at the summit were commitments to recovering and repatriating POW/MIA remains (an emotional issue for the families of war veterans), and to shutting down a missile-engine test site. Trump said that Kim agreed to the latter gesture, as a favor, at the last minute.

So Kim went home from Singapore with a bevy of prizes: the legitimization of his regime as a world power worthy of peer treatment by an American president (who, afterward, suggested a possible future White House meeting); a suspension of military exercises on his border (which had been a tangible sign of the U.S.–South Korean military alliance, which Pyongyang has long wanted to disrupt); and the easing of once-firm demands on the pace and verification of disarmament.

Trump went home with a promise by Kim to recover dead soldiers’ remains, suspend operations at a missile-engine test site, and dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons sometime in the future.

Game and set to Kim.

On a broader level, all this is good news compared with the headlines of several months ago, when Trump and Kim exchanged threats routinely and storm clouds of war rumbled eerily overhead. In their joint statement on Tuesday, the two sides agreed to hold “follow-on negotiations,” led by Pompeo and a high-level North Korean official, “at the earliest possible date, to implement the outcomes” of the summit—i.e., to fill in the many blanks and reconcile the many conflicts.

This process will take years and may not amount to much in the end. Still, the summit produced what some had forecast as a modest, substantive outcome—maybe the best of what might be achievable: a declaration of lofty long-term goals, accompanied by a few tangible gestures and the creation of a forum where the diplomats can work out the details.

At the same time, though, Kim remains a totalitarian monster who can’t be trusted—and Trump remains a gullible mark, more impressed than any grown-up should be by limousines and red carpets.

Trump’s post-summit press conference wavered between a puzzle and a disgrace. Asked about the joint statement’s lack of verification clauses, Trump invoked his instincts as a reliable meter, beginning an alarming number of sentences with the phrase “I believe.” A few hours later, referring to Kim in an interview with ABC News, he said, “He trusts me, and I trust him.”

Finally, when asked at the press conference about North Korea’s economic prospects, given that it’s currently one of the most impoverished splotches on the planet, Trump said, “They have great beaches. You see that whenever they are exploding the cannons in the ocean. I said, ‘Look at that view, that would make a great condo.’ I explained it. I said, ‘Instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world. Think of it from the real estate perspective.’ ”

This may be Donald Trump’s biggest shortcoming: He thinks of the entire world from a real estate perspective; Kim Jong-un and most of the world’s other leaders are not so narrow or naïve.