The summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un undeniably deserved the overused epithet “historic.”
Hopes for peace were palpable as they radiated out of Singapore. Given the real fears just six months ago that the US and North Korea were heading for a horrendous war amid Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric and Kim’s nuclear tests, that is a significant achievement in itself.
But the almost dreamlike encounter between the President of the United States and the supreme leader of the world’s most repressive state ended with mounting questions about what actually had been achieved, who had won most, and what will happen next.
Did the show-stopping moment give Trump a win?
Trump and Kim both got what they wanted from a propaganda bonanza punctuated by multiple photo-ops that will help cement the political legitimacy of both men in their vastly different contexts back home.
It might have been the reality star-turned-President’s most spectacular made-for-television event yet, as the globe tuned in to see him pull off an improbable feat in luring the leader of North Korea out of the cold for a summit than none of his predecessors ever attempted.
Characteristically, Trump cited Kim’s praise of his efforts.
“He said, ‘we have never gone this far.’ I don’t think they’ve ever had the confidence, frankly, in a president that they have right now for getting things done and having the ability to get things done,” Trump said.
The White House is likely to use the summit to frame Trump as a daring peacemaker as he heads into troublesome midterm elections. And the carnival atmosphere in Singapore might also keep Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation out of the headlines for a few more days.
Can Kim claim victory, too?
For Kim, the spectacle was almost the entire point of the summit.
He accepted the ultimate affirmation for his dynastic rule by meeting a US President who gushed that he was “a very talented man.” His two days in the spotlight will solidify his developing image as an increasingly dexterous regional statesman – a status no North Korean leader has ever enjoyed.
In a walkabout below the soaring, gleaming Singapore skyline, the ruthless dictator was treated like a celebrity, in scenes that along with Trump’s embrace are sure to be used by Pyongyang’s official media for years in films and murals designed to puff up Kim’s personality cult.
Trump even gave him a tour of his personal “Beast” armored limousine.
The summit could also create a hopeful atmosphere that could make China and other nations less inclined to enforce the rigid economic sanctions that have led to the success of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign that got Kim to the table.
What did Trump actually get and what did he give up?
The President made the case that he had forged an instant brotherhood with Kim that will uniquely position him to preside over the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
“He trusts me, I believe, I really do,” Trump said in an interview with ABC News. “I think he trusts me, and I trust him.”
If this meeting sparks a diplomatic process that ends the North Korean nuclear threat, and heals one of the oldest open diplomatic sores in history, it will deserve a place in the pantheon of summits involving presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
And Trump will deserve credit for an astute use of presidential power, a willingness to take risks and might even get the Nobel Peace Prize that even his enemies should not begrudge him.
But those wins seem as distant as ever after the summit.
“It seems to me that Donald Trump made a lot of concessions and got very little in return,” said historian and CNN national security and defense analyst Max Boot.
The joint declaration issued by the two sides after the summit did not appear to make any significant progress in committing the North Koreans to the complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal that the administration wants.
It included a tepid commitment from the North Koreans to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and for follow-up talks led from the US side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The use of the word “reaffirmed” in the declaration served to highlight the lack of fresh commitments and it did not include a pledge by North Korea for an accounting of its missile and nuclear programs that many analysts saw before the summit as a test of its success.
What does denuclearization actually mean?
There also was no sign that the two sides had narrowed the contradiction in their positions about what denuclearization actually means.
The US says it’s self-explanatory – Pyongyang must get rid of its nukes. But the North Koreans define the concept as the disappearance of America’s nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea.
The summit statement also appeared to fall short of previous declarations by the United States and North Korea, inked under the regimes of Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il. And now North Korea is believed to have a nuclear arsenal of 20-60 weapons and is close to putting a device atop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the United States.
“Unfortunately, it is still unclear whether the two sides are on the same page about definitions and the pace, and the sequencing of many steps involved in the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
The President did reveal that Kim told him he had already destroyed a major missile engine site – though it was not clear how significant this step was or how it could be verified.
And amid some consternation among even his fellow Republicans that he has given too much away, Trump promised to be vigilant.
“Our eyes are wide open, but peace is always worth the effort, especially in this case,” Trump said.
What happens now with US troops?
Kim came away with an unexpected gift, after Trump shocked his allies in Seoul and his own military by calling a halt to joint US-South Korean military exercises about which Pyongyang has long fumed.
Trump called the exercises “provocative” – adopting North Korea’s own rhetoric and said canceling them for as long as dialogue was working out would save a lot of money.
His offer will reinforce worries in Congress that the President, who has long disputed the value of US garrisons abroad, is preparing to put the presence of thousands of US troops on the negotiating table. And it will delight China, which is seeking to overtake the United States as the premier military power in the Asia Pacific region.
What about human rights and coddling dictators?
There was something almost chilling in seeing the President fete Kim in front of a backdrop of US and North Korean flags.
After all, Kim presides over the world’s most oppressive state, with a record of enslaving and starving his people, and was responsible for the death of a US prisoner Otto Warmbier last year.
The meeting also represented a stunning about face for traditional US foreign policy.
Two days before Trump told the world that Kim “loves his country very much,” he blasted America’s oldest allies after an acrimonious G7 summit and one of his top advisers warned there was “a special place in hell” reserved for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
That juxtaposition reflected the way Trump often chides America’s oldest friends, but seems comfortable in the company of authoritarians like Kim, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.
In some senses, Trump was right that only he could have engineered the summit.
This moment in history may have been tailor-made for a US president ready to downplay America’s traditional concerns about human rights, and who is willing to dine with Kim to remove a grave military threat.
But critics will still accuse Trump of appeasing a ruthless dictator.
What happens in the coming months will decide whether the summit comes to be seen as a true breakthrough moment or a low point of American diplomacy.
It will now be up to Pompeo to conduct the kind of exhaustive talks in pursuit of a nuclear arms reduction accord that ironically was the main job of his predecessor John Kerry, who spent years chasing the Iran deal from which Trump withdrew.
Trump insisted in Singapore that North Korea was serious about its willingness to give up its nuclear weapons. Everything will now depend on whether Kim has made that strategic choice in the hope of transforming his primitive economy.
But there is still no evidence that Pyongyang has dropped its habitual practice of demanding concessions in a drawn out negotiating process that always leaves its weapons programs intact.