Tuesday’s historic meeting between North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald J. Trump boiled down to mostly a photo op. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad. If the goal is an improved relationship between the two countries, a denuclearized Korean peninsula and North Korea’s entry into the civilized world, the process has to start somewhere and Singapore might prove as good a place and today as good a moment as any. But anyone who watched the cordial handshake and smiles in front of a row of flags, Old Glory getting equal billing to North Korea’s Red Star, must have suffered some level of queasiness and ambivalence — or else they haven’t been paying attention.
Let’s face it, a despot born from a family of despots who leads by fear and brutal tactics, who starves his own people, who chose to build nuclear weapons rather than engage with the world does not deserve to be treated as royalty. In a perfect world where justice is served and evildoers are punished for their crimes, U.S. presidents would not be shaking hands with tyrants such as this, they would be prosecuting them in the International Court of Justice. And they certainly would not tell reporters that meeting with such a person was “really fantastic” or brag that they had developed a “special bond” as President Trump did after his meeting with the North Korean leader.
And yet. And yet. From the beginning, this summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump has been an oddity. On the one hand is the leader of what may be the world’s most oppressive regime with whom Western leaders have been reluctant to even meet for fear of legitimizing. On the other is a remarkably unreliable and ill-prepared U.S. president who has proudly stated he would rely on instinct and take the measure of his counterpart in the first minute of their encounter despite not even getting along with his country’s closest allies at the G-7 meeting two days earlier. Add to the mix nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (not to mention chemical and biological weapons capabilities) and an unresolved conflict with South Korea and that adds up to a lot of uncertainty and potential disaster.
Should the relationship go no further than where it is right now, any objective observer would have to say, victory to Kim Jong-un. The leader of the Free World stood on stage and treated the son of “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-il as an equal. Spoke of him glowingly. And to top it off, agreed to no longer hold joint military exercises — commonly known as “war games” — with South Korea (to our actual ally’s surprise, apparently). The joint statement they signed proved exceptionally vague with no promise of nuclear dismantlement or verification or irreversibility, only a promise to work toward a denuclearized peninsula. Economic sanctions haven’t been lifted, of course, but then not much ground has been given by North Korea either.
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But maybe this strategy will work. Maybe Mr. Kim is serious about turning a corner. Maybe this level of respect and deference is the kind of magic dust that needed to be sprinkled on this Gordian knot to get it loosened. Clearly, the Trump White House knows a thing or two about dealing with a headstrong leader susceptible to flattery and indulgence. A year from now, people might be toasting this president for achieving a diplomatic victory that seemed unimaginable just months earlier when he was taunting “Little Rocket Man” and West Coast communities were measuring their Cold War bomb shelters for fallout drapes. Take that, Barack Obama, Nobel Prize winner.
Or it could be that one year from now, not much will have changed. Diplomats will stage more meetings. More photos will be taken. Kim Jong-un will continue to be normalized, and his propaganda machinery will make full use of it. Whatever nuclear test facilities were destroyed will be deemed inconsequential. But even then, it will probably be no worse then when the whole thing started — except for the people of North Korea, of course. They’ll still have a ruthless dictator whose position was strengthened — if unintentionally — by a U.S. president seeking to make his mark on the world but having neither the patience nor strength of resolve to do it.
So which is it? Nobody can possibly know. And that’s why the only real certainty from the Trump-Kim meeting is that a door may or may not have been opened to something meaningful. Let’s hope it was.