North Korean leader notched diplomatic coup that eluded his father and grandfather
The leader of the world's most repressive regime — who reportedly delights in ordering his political enemies in North Korea blown to smithereens with anti-aircraft guns or ripped apart by starving dogs — stepped out of his limousine on Singapore's Sentosa Island Tuesday morning to receive the priceless gift of a face-to-face meeting with the putative leader of the free world.
At that moment, Kim Jong-un notched the diplomatic coup that had eluded him, his father and his grandfather for decades: In front of the world, the despot was treated as an equal by the president of the United States.
That had been expected. Donald Trump's hasty agreement in March to meet with Kim before negotiating what they'd even talk about seemed to guarantee that the ceremony of the occasion would supersede its substance. So the ceremony had to be good — and it was.
But no one expected that Trump would or should give Kim more than that. Even when Trump dialed down expectations for the meeting, saying he'd set it up as a "meet and greet plus," the "plus" could still have been as little as a promise to continue moving the relationship forward, and signaling the intention to meet again.
Instead, Trump made significant concessions to Kim. He promised to end joint military exercises with South Korea, which have been an irritant to North Korea for decades, and Trump even speculated about pulling all U.S. troops from the peninsula. "I want to get our soldiers out," Trump said. Point for Kim.
Making the first move
Trump called the military exercises "war games." By ending them, he said, "we will be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus I think it's very provocative."
Calling the exercises "provocative" endorses the North Korean view of them at the expense of the traditional South Korean-U.S. view, which is that they are normal and necessary for the readiness of their defenses. Another point for Kim.
Most important is that Trump got nothing in return for that concession. He flipped what was thought to be the U.S. strategy — the hard line that the U.S. would refuse even an "action-for-action" negotiation — and instead made the first move.
South Korea had thought that "action-for-action" was a good strategy, that it would build trust through reciprocal concessions. But it clearly did not anticipate that the U.S. would go all the way to a unilateral concession.
President Moon Jae-in's statement after Trump's announcement — that South Korea needed "to figure out" the president's intentions — strongly suggests he wasn't even consulted about what would happen. A point for Kim, as well as for others in the region, notably China, who will be happy to see some daylight in relations between the U.S. and South Korea.
Kim also scored a series of reputational points. During his news conference, Trump described the dictator as "talented," "tough," a "great personality" and a "worthy negotiator."
It was probably not the time for Trump to say that Kim is actually a macabre and murderous thug who terrorizes his own family, not to mention the people of his country. But still, "tough"? That's a word Trump considers the highest praise.
Trump also got carried away imagining the brighter future he and Kim could build for North Korea. As usual, Trump saw it in real estate developer terms, and spoke of the hotels that might soon sprout across the skyline of the hermit kingdom once it broke into the sunlight. He stopped short of imagining them as Trump-branded hotels, but it still sounded uncomfortably like a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Of course, Trump played all of it as a step toward the complete denuclearization of North Korea, because Kim had "reaffirmed" his commitment to that goal. But the word "reaffirmed" actually confirmed that Kim had offered nothing new on Sentosa Island — certainly nothing that he or his predecessors hadn't said to the world before.
From 'Little Rocket Man' to 'worthy negotiator'
Which is not to say that this time can't be different.
Applying diplomacy to North Korea, like waking up in the morning, is better than the alternative. And when we remember how adolescent the Kim-Trump relationship seemed just a few months ago — with its "Little Rocket Man" and "dotard" insults, as well as the schoolyard taunts about who has the bigger nuclear button — the world is on a better track now than it was.
Trump's conduct in the world is still worrisomely puzzling, though. In the space of a few days, he went from spurning America's most dependable allies at the G-7 (in an example of what one aide reportedly described as his "We're America, bitch!" doctrine) to awarding his best behaviour to a tyrant who's devoted his adult life to developing a nuclear weapon that could hit the White House.
Numerous veterans of the State Department have fled rather than abet a foreign policy they consider amateurish. But on North Korea, none of those former diplomats can boast a record of success.
It's possible that the world will look back on this meeting as the start of something meaningful in the rehabilitation of a dangerous rogue state. The concession to end "war games" is something that, as South Korea says, still needs to be figured out. But whatever it turns out to be, it won't be irreversible if things don't progress.
Before handing out Nobel prizes, though, it's important to see what happened in the way that Kim likely sees it. He's just enjoyed the most unimaginable success on the international stage in the history of his country. It was made possible by the fact of his nuclear weapons, so their value to him has proved itself. Does that really sound like the precondition that would persuade him to give up those weapons in the foreseeable future?