At first glance, it is easy to call the meeting between US president, Donald Trump, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un, “historic” and “unprecedented”. It was the first meeting between sitting leaders of the two countries, which are still technically in a state of war.
You could also call it a success – preparations and schedules were respected, the media had ample opportunity to take shots of the two men shaking hands in front of the colourful display of 12 intermingled American and North Korean flags – and they were also privy to comments by the two leaders, including Kim in one of his very rare appearances in front of the foreign press.
The meeting was also a success from a security and optics points of view: smiles were exchanged, in-depth discussions took place between cabinet members, nobody went off script and there were no security breaches, thanks to ironclad preparations by their Singaporean hosts.
Now that both leaders are on their way back to their own countries, we are left with many photos of the bromance du jour, as well as a signed statement – and a plethora of questions. What should we take away from this historic moment? Here are three key points:
1. Ultimately it was North Korea’s day
Kim has managed to build upon the work of his father and grandfather and secured the highest form of recognition that there is – a bilateral meeting with the president of the most powerful country on the planet.
And North Korea did not have to pay a cent for it: China furnished a plane, Singapore footed the US$15m-plus bill for the summit, and the media distributed images of the North Korean leader parlaying on equal terms with the US president to the entire world. It’s a resounding success for Kim – and one that is likely to be exploited back home for political purpose.
2. What is written in the agreement
The joint document signed by both parties shows the craftiness and hardline approach the DPRK has taken to the summit. Though the agreement commits both parties to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – removing all nuclear weapons from the region, including potential American weapons – the DPRK has only reiterated, in writing, its commitment to “work towards” this aim.
This is certainly not the pledge for the unilateral dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programme that the US has always pushed for.
3. What is not written in the agreement
The agreement shows a clear miss from the United States, as there are no mentions of CVID (“complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement”) of North Korean nuclear capabilities – something that was talked about a great deal in the run up to the meeting.
Given that Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser, John Bolton, have signalled that they would accept nothing short of CVID, this is a giant omission. Essentially, this should be read as a refusal from the DPRK to state that they would denuclearise unilaterally.
4. Putting words into action
The agreement provides very vague concepts for a new US-DPRK relationship – one that will without a doubt also change the nature of balance and geopolitics in East Asia and relationships with other regional actors such as South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
The first concrete action was for the American president to announce he intends to call a halt to the annual war game exercises organised between the US and South Korea (the most recent exercises nearly derailed the inter-Korea summit a few weeks ago). This is an important step toward confidence building for both sides of the summit and one that should be praised.
But it is important to note that Trump’s rationale was to scrap the war games, not because they offend and worry the DPRK – but, as he himself stated to the media, because they cost a lot of money. And money – especially the way Trump thinks the rest of the world takes advantage of the US – was a theme the US president returned to repeatedly in the post-summit press conference.
Trump also talked about real estate development opportunities in the DPRK. In essence, Trump’s money-focused transactional nature took only a few hours to surface after his handshake with Kim. But peace has a cost and, given the current US narrative that seeks to avoid foreign entanglement and is fed up with spending money on international commitments, it will require the United States to manage its shaky alliances if this is to be a realistic prospect.
And as reactions are starting to pour in from world leaders, it is important to remember that the summit has given the DPRK legitimacy on the world stage, while there was little talk of how this legitimacy was acquired: essentially by developing nuclear weapons.
Kim is a dictator who has purged a number of rivals while starving and oppressing his own population. Ultimately, Trump has just willingly sat down with a villain and not gained much in the way of concessions in return.