The Singapore summit was a mesmerizing spectacle utterly lacking in substance. In other words, it was a perfect microcosm of the Trump presidency.
The entire world was riveted by television images of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands in front of a backdrop of North Korean and U.S. flags, walking to and from lunch, checking out Trump’s limousine and finally signing a summit declaration. For both leaders, the hype was the whole point.
Kim won an invaluable propaganda windfall: Ruling one of the poorest and most despotic countries in the world (North Korea’s gross domestic product is roughly a third of Vermont’s), he was recognized as an equal by the leader of the world’s sole superpower — not just an equal, indeed, but a valued friend. Trump claimed to have established a “special bond” with Kim just a day after one of his aides said there was a “special place in hell” reserved for the prime minister of Canada. (The aide, Peter Navarro, has now admitted his comment was “inappropriate.”)
Trump can barely stand to be in the same room with the leaders of the United States’ democratic allies, but he reveled in his quality time with Kim — “a very talented” and “very smart” man who “loves his country very much” and who, in turn, is loved by his own people. If Kim does indeed love his country, he has a funny way of showing it, since he enslaves his own citizens. If you want to learn more about Kim’s atrocities, all you have to do is reread Trump’s own Jan. 30 State of the Union address, which gave chapter and verse on the “depraved character of the North Korean regime.”
There was, however, no mention of North Korean human rights abuses on Tuesday. That would have been a downer for a president who has plenty of other downers to deal with — from a special counsel investigation to a botched Group of Seven summit. Trump was in full salesman mode in Singapore, touting a meeting that he claimed had gone “better than anybody could have expected.”
I guess it all depends on what your expectations were. If you took Trump seriously when he claimed on April 22 that Kim had “agreed to denuclearization (so great for World),” then you are bound to be disappointed. If, on the other hand, your expectation was that North Korea would string Trump along with meaningless verbiage, then the summit was precisely what you expected. The meeting really should have been held in Oakland, not Singapore, because there is no there there.
Trump and Kim agreed to four points. The first was empty blather about the United States and North Korea desiring “peace and prosperity.” The second was more empty blather about building a “lasting and stable peace regime.” The fourth was a microscopically small commitment to the repatriation of the remains of Korean War POW/MIAs. The key point was No. 3 — “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” — and on closer examination it, too, is empty blather. I can commit “to work towards” beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon, but that doesn’t mean that I will ever reach the goal.
The Singapore Declaration repeats virtually verbatim the pledge that North Korea made not only on April 27 but also on numerous other occasions stretching all the way back to 1992. That’s right — North Korea has been promising to denuclearize for 26 years, and in that time it has acquired not only an estimated 60 nuclear weapons but also the ballistic missiles to deliver them.
Perhaps this time will be different and Kim really, truly means it. If so, we will find out soon enough, because he will agree to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” disarmament that the Trump administration had initially insisted upon. But there was no mention of those words in the Singapore Declaration, just as there was no mention of human rights. Trump assailed the Iran nuclear deal as the “worst deal ever.” The deal he struck with North Korea is far weaker.
This is where the negotiations stand at the moment. Before the summit, North Korea agreed to an easily reversible moratorium on nuclear and missile testing, it blew up a nuclear test site (but probably only for show), it started razing a missile-testing site, and it released three U.S. prisoners who had been taken so that North Korea could get credit for releasing them.
And in return, Trump legitimated the odious North Korean regime, stopped U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises (which he called, adopting Pyongyang’s language, “provocative … war games”) and destroyed his “maximum pressure” policy of sanctions. China is no longer enforcing sanctions as rigorously as it once did, and the United States is not imposing new sanctions. The pressure is off — and will stay off as long as Kim makes a show of negotiating.
Kim’s incentive, naturally, is to draw out the process as long as possible while giving up as little as possible. And Trump’s incentive is to play along in the hopes of winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Yes, this is preferable to nuclear war — but that doesn’t mean that Trump wasn’t snookered.
Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. A best-selling historian, he is the author most recently of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”