After the great Trump-Kim show, what was all the fuss about?
Whatever the long-term implications or the merits of the agreement reached last week between the US and North Korea on the future of the Pyongyang’s nuclear program, no one was left in any doubt that Messrs. Trump and Kim can put on a spectacular show. As for the agreement itself, it is less than remarkable, though of the two leaders Kim Jong Un can feel the more satisfied.
It was certainly one of the best-choreographed summits in recent times, starting with the exotic venue on the Singaporean island of Sentosa, then the long handshakes followed by promises to reach a great breakthrough while everyone waited on tenterhooks for this “comprehensive” agreement — all creating the sense of a big occasion. It was the theater and the drama that both love to bask in. However, when one goes beyond the optics and the imagery, one is left with an inevitable question: What was all the fuss about?
The details of the agreement reveal that at best this is a promising declaration of principles, which will require much more work and attention to detail in order to lead to something more meaningful. At worst, as the curtain comes down on the Trump–Kim denuclearization show, there is not much in the way of substance, leaving Kim with international legitimacy and enhanced credibility at home while he has conceded little in return.
It would, of course, be foolish to completely write off the summit. The fact that it took place at all, and ended with both still on speaking terms, is an achievement in itself. After all, not long ago the two exchanged insults such as “little rocket man” and “deranged dotard,” not to mention threatening each other’s country with their nuclear capability. It has all changed now following their Singaporean détente, with Trump referring to Kim as “a very talented man … who loves his country very much,” a man the US president respects for taking over North Korea at a very young age and being able to “to run it, and run it tough.” It is worrying to know what Trump admires in a fellow head of state.
It is a sad week for the free and democratic world when the president of the US is more at ease with the leader of one of the last totalitarian regimes on the planet than with the leaders of the G7.
Ignoring Trump’s shortcomings of character judgment as he pours praise on a mass abuser of human rights is one thing, but he also demonstrated — and not for the first time — that he is far from what he claims to be: The master of a good deal. He returns to Washington with no more than a promise, some sort an aspiration for both countries “to establish new US–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the people of the two countries for peace and prosperity.” Furthermore, in his customary eloquent manner, Trump lauded the agreement reached with the North Korea’s leader as a “very comprehensive” one that would “take care of a very big and very dangerous problem for the world.” However, what the two sides agreed on falls substantially short of what Washington was demanding of Pyongyang all along. President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have repeatedly argued that the only deal they would accept was one that meant the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear program.” In Singapore Trump and Kim agreed to no more than reaffirmation of the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, and that North Korea “commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Anyone who has bothered to study the history of agreements with North Korea will have found that the regime’s record in complying with what it has agreed to is dubious. This was the case with the 1994 and 2005 agreements, which were considerably more detailed than the document signed this week, and included details of inspection and verification. Working toward denuclearization with no strict deadlines or verification process is a rather redundant notion. It could easily lead to a demand by Kim to end US nuclear protection of South Korea, or of the region altogether. There is no mention, not the slightest hint, of starting a process of verifying what kind of nuclear arsenal North Korea possesses and how it is going to be “irreversibly” dismantled.
To be sure, Trump gained very little from a public display of affection with someone who is almost a complete pariah in the international community. Kim on the other hand, in only his third trip outside his country since he became leader in 2011, gained legitimacy by standing next to the president of the most powerful country in the world, the leader of the free world. Moreover, he extracted from Trump another concession, that of the US ending its joint military exercises with South Korea, which took everyone by surprise, and left all wondering why Trump rushed to make this commitment without ensuring that the threat from the north had subsided.
It is a sad week for the free and democratic world when the president of the US is more at ease with the leader of one of the last totalitarian regimes on the planet than with the leaders of the G7. The diametrically opposite treatment at the hands of Trump and his advisers of the sensible and much liked prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, compared to the mollycoddling of Kim, was striking.
But Trump couldn’t afford two disastrous international summits in one week. Hence it led him to portray the encounter with Kim, that was at best a first positive step in a very long process, into an instant success – fake news indeed.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.