Showing off at summit
SINGAPORE — Style triumphed over substance in a summit of imagery and optics that left you wondering, why did they bother?
President Trump sought to justify the whole performance as an exercise that was “as good for the U.S. as for North Korea,” but the joint statement that he and Kim Jong-un signed for all the world to see on TV contained no real promises or commitments, no guarantees, nothing that much changed the state of play between the two Koreas.
If Trump during his presidential campaign said that he would like to sit down with Kim for a hamburger, he and Kim appeared instead to have shared a nothing-burger. There was really nothing in the statement on which to chew, to digest, to savor, that would change the dynamics on the Korean peninsula for the better.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the statement was what it did not say. It neglected to mention complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID), the term the Americans have been using for years to say what North Korea must do about its nuclear program. That omission in itself represented a triumph for Kim, who presumably would not have considered any formulation that seriously committed him to denuclearization.
Oh, the words “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” were there, but as everyone knows they’re a sham. When Kim calls for denuclearization, he is not talking about his own program but about the “nuclear umbrella” that the U.S. holds over the region. The U.S. pulled its nukes from South Korea before North and South got together on an agreement for a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula in 1992, but U.S. warships and bombers carry warheads seen by the North as a threat.
Trump did not appear fazed by the omission of CVID. He had gotten Kim to make a “commitment to complete denuclearization” that was good enough for him to claim a breakthrough. Would Kim when he landed back in North Korea show his commitment by beginning to tear down his nuclear program? “Skeptics,” as Trump had put it in a tweet, were “losers.”
There was, however, ample reason to be skeptical, doubtful and otherwise cynical about Kim’s success at preserving a nuclear program that’s enshrined in the country’s constitution. Kim’s overwhelming desire has always been to maintain North Korea’s status as an added member of the elite eight nations that are able to wipe out hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, with a flick of the switch at the launch pad.
Kim had reason to revel. Trump had given him what he wanted, but that wasn’t all. Remember all the talk about the need for U.S. troops in South Korea? If North Korea was not going to stage hostile acts, open a second Korean War or otherwise provide a reason for their existence, why have them in Korea at all?
Trump could not have agreed more. He never liked having so many troops around. They’re a waste of money, he said.
Kim hardly had to negotiate their withdrawal. Trump obliged by saying he would like to pull them back but not quite yet. In the meantime, he would call off “war games” that he believed were not only “provocative” but costly. Why in this “new era” should thousands of U.S. and South Korean troops threaten North Korea with exercises that the North always calls a threat to invade?
What was the deal? Had Trump decided to stop the war games in response to Kim’s demand? Had he secretly told Kim, “We’ll halt our exercises if you’ll be sure not to test-fire missiles or explode more nukes?” Was this the freeze-for-freeze or action-for-action that the U.S. had previously resisted?
It certainly sounded that way. Trump’s decision to cancel exercises with the South Koreans was probably the most important real news of the summit. He did leave an out — that is, he would not order their cancellation if North Korea still had done nothing about its nukes — but basically he was caving in.
Trump conveyed the sense that speed was of the essence. “We have to get things moving fast,” he said. “I really believe it’s going to go quickly.”
You would never guess from reading the North’s claim the next day that Trump had agreed on a “step by step” process that Kim had demanded. Trump was worried about speed. Just to hurry him along, Trump said he’d like to meet him again, maybe at the White House, maybe in Pyongyang. Appearances count. Kim had gotten more than he had bargained for.