The Singapore Summit Between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un Means Nothing for the Future of North Korea and America

There were some odd criticisms leveled against President Donald Trump in the weeks leading up the just-concluded Singapore summit. The president and his national security adviser had not held a cabinet-level meeting to discuss the summit. Nor had Trump been hitting his briefing books too hard, we learned.

Trump’s laissez faire attitude was held up in contrast to North Korea, which, we were told repeatedly, had been preparing for “decades” for the meeting. (An odd claim, on its face, given that Donald Trump only became president 18 months ago. How do you prepare for negotiations for “decades” when you have no idea who will be at the other side of the table?) The biggest fear seemed to be that Trump, an impulsive figure, would “give away” too much in the course of his negotiations with Kim Jong-un.

But in reality, the meeting in Singapore was no negotiation. Nor was it ever going to be one: You don’t hash out the end of a 60-year conflict and the elimination of a complex nuclear weapons program over the course of 45 minutes. The summit was simply the ratification—and a photo-op—of diplomatic spade work that has been going on for months. That a written declaration was quickly released at the meeting’s conclusion shows this: Trump and Kim did not scribble it out on hotel napkins. It was pre-written.

Mike Pompeo made two visits (that we know of) to North Korea this year, one as CIA director and one as secretary of State. Kim Yong-chol, North Korea’s former spymaster, visited the United States just last month. These meetings were the actual negotiations: discussions about what, precisely, each side wanted, and what each side was willing to give up. In addition to those headliners, lower-level contacts between the U.S. and North Korea have been ongoing for months. Trump and Kim’s meeting was simply an opportunity for the two leaders to rubber stamp the framework that had already been laid out by their underlings.

And what was that framework? A very broad and non-specific four-point plan to “establish new U.S.-North Korea relations; build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula; reaffirm the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration which declared the common goal of the ‘complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula;’ and commit to recovering remains of prisoners of war,” Korea’s Joonang Ilbo reported. (Note the similarities to the failed 1993 declaration.) President Trump suggested an immediate end to U.S.-South Korean war games that the North despises; Kim appears to have given up nothing at the outset, except for a continuation of his testing freeze.

The deplorable human rights situation in North Korea, predictably, was not on the agenda. This is a testament both to North Korea’s extreme sensitivity to the issue (it would likely have torn up any agreement that made mention of it) and the leverage that its nuclear arsenal has won it. Nor was the repatriation of Japanese abductees. (In an act of almost cartoonish evil, during the 1970s and ’80s, scores of Japanese were abducted as they walked on their country’s beaches and ferreted away to North Korea as kidnap victims.) It might have been odd for Japanese abductees to have been mentioned in a U.S.-North Korean bilateral declaration, but Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that the issue is a big deal for his government—on par, he says, with the North’s nuclear weapons program.

With the actual work of denuclearization still to come, and the path forward hazy, the most memorable thing to come out of the meeting was the sick imagery that accompanied it: Dennis Rodman weeping, and the hideous totalitarian Kim Jong-un enjoying a free vacation to Singapore, with the media chasing after him like he was the reincarnation of both Diana and Dodi. Hey, that’s show business. But on a substantive level, we won’t be able to judge it the meeting a true success or a failure until years from now.

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