The sobering realities behind the pomp of Trump-Kim summit
In my column last week, I predicted that Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un would benefit in big ways from their historic summit in Singapore — but that the world would not be any better off.
Unfortunately, now that the summit has concluded, it appears that prediction was correct.
As expected, Trump got what he wanted, including wall-to-wall media attention. From his historic handshake with Kim to his claim that the summit went “better than anyone expected,” it was the perfect situation for Trump; and an indication that, at least on superficial levels, being contrarian and unconventional can win you big victories on the world stage. This includes a cordial face-to-face meeting with a leader who had indirectly threatened to nuke America just a few months earlier.
This is the new normal in international diplomacy: Dramatic high-level summitry used as a tool to defuse tensions. When Woodrow Wilson called for more open diplomacy 100 years ago, this probably was not what he had in mind.
Meanwhile, Kim also got what he wanted: Legitimacy. There was something surreal about how he was received in Singapore. On Monday, he was greeted with wild applause in public appearances. He even posed for selfies. Kim got the rock-star treatment, bringing legitimacy to a tyrant and making him a winner well before the summit even started. The summit itself only increased this legitimacy. Kim enjoyed a high-level meeting that would be the envy of any national leader — replete with handshakes, effusive comments from his interlocutor, a sumptuous meal, and much more.
And yet, what did it all amount to? Not much. The two men signed a joint statement that pledged to fulfill each side’s wish list: North Korea’s denuclearization, efforts toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, and US security guarantees to North Korea.
The problem is that the statement was worded extraordinarily vaguely, offering little detail on how these ambitious aims will be achieved. This suggests that, despite the conciliatory comments from both men promising to move forward and leave the past behind, there is little reason to believe meaningful progress will be made toward achieving these objectives anytime soon. Indeed, if there is any hope of achieving ambitious aims, there needs to be a clearly articulated strategy. And such a framework appears to be wholly lacking.
Perhaps the most consequential outcome of the summit was Trump’s decision to stop staging military exercises with South Korea — an enormous concession to Pyongyang. If not walked back, this pledge could have dramatic implications for America’s relations with its Asian treaty allies.
Let us be clear: South Korea and Japan cannot possibly be pleased about this pledge.
This dramatic concession points to one of Trump’s more unsettling tendencies: Pursuing perceived US interests with little regard for Washington’s closest international relationships. Indeed, in the last few days, Trump has alienated America’s allies while appeasing its enemies. He arrived in Singapore from a G-7 meeting in Canada, where he had angered key friends, including the host nation. This followed earlier cases of upsetting leaders from Australia, India, Great Britain and Mexico, among others. Meanwhile, with the stark exception of Iran, Trump has waxed conciliatory toward leaders in several rival nations, including Russia and North Korea.
The Trump administration does have an opportunity to prove its critics wrong. If it manages to take concrete measures — such as establishing a dialogue process with Pyongyang, proposing a clear path to denuclearization, and positioning itself as a formal mediator to help broker peace between North and South — then it may allay some of the skepticism.
Such measures, however, will not come easily — not just because of the administration’s questionable bandwidth to carry out such pursuits, but also because of North Korea’s own unwillingness to denuclearize. Additionally, Trump’s pledge to discontinue military exercises with South Korea could undercut US relations with Seoul and constrain any effort to play the role of mediator.
Trump and Kim got what they wanted: Breathless media attention, acclaim, prestige, and legitimacy. Two mercurial and mysterious personalities have managed to defy expectations once again.
At the end of the day, other than the dramatic precedent set by the meeting itself, there was not much that was new or earth-shattering about the summit. Both sides made vague pledges that they may well never carry out — and that, in some cases, have already been made previously. This is not the first time, for example, that North Korea has pledged to denuclearize.
The bottom line is Trump and Kim got what they wanted: Breathless media attention, acclaim, prestige, and legitimacy. Two mercurial and mysterious personalities have managed to defy expectations once again.
But, for the rest of us, there is not all that much to celebrate. North Korea continues to have nuclear capabilities, and likely always will. And peace on the Korean Peninsula remains a distant hope.
These are the sobering realities that all the pomp and circumstance and glitz and pageantry of the Singapore summit cannot obscure.
• Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.