Even before Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in Singapore earlier this week, there was a clear need to manage expectations about what the summit could achieve. Indeed, Trump had begun to do just that, explaining that he was ready to walk away at any moment, emphasising that denuclearisation is a protracted business, and deploying that Trumpian expression for all seasons: “we’ll see”. Nonetheless, there was a groundswell of positive sentiment about the meeting – above all in South Korea, where President Moon Jae In’s diplomatic initiatives will likely produce huge gains for his party in local elections this month. Many media outlets added to the buzz around the summit by playing up its historic nature.
The event proved to be a public-relations and rhetorical victory for Kim – and, after a fashion, for Trump. A dictator who threatened to launch nuclear strikes against North Korea’s neighbours and the United States only a few months ago – and who used nerve agent to assassinate his brother in a Malaysian airport last year – Kim gained a rare opportunity to play the young tourist, posing for selfies as he took in Singapore’s nightlife. Meanwhile, Trump – ever the unconventional leader – stated that the US would end its joint military exercises with South Korea because they were “expensive” and “provocative”, a position that resonates with isolationist and pacifist Americans. And, true to form, Trump quickly upended a joint statement with unexpected declarations and decisions. In all, the summit had two distinct products: one is a four-paragraph agreement signed by Kim and Trump; the other comprises Trump’s subsequent announcements.
Taken in isolation, the agreement negates most of the Trump administration’s earlier positions on North Korea. Kim made no concessions that went beyond previous agreements – several of which included far greater detail on areas such as verified and irreversible denuclearisation. As it stands, the agreement merely reiterates the vacuous stance on denuclearisation North Korea has held since 1992.
Prior to the summit, the Trump administration – and observers mindful of past diplomatic failures – had demanded that the agreement be “frontloaded” with verifiable North Korean concessions. It includes nothing of the sort. On the contrary, Trump put two new American concessions on the table: diplomatic recognition of the North and security guarantees for the regime. The latter seems an indefinite insurance plan against reunification on anything but the North’s terms. Thus, the agreement is a dead end sold as the road to denuclearisation and peace – and, as such, it beggars belief.
Trump’s statements in Singapore seem even more counterproductive. His claims that Kim will visit in Washington and that the US will end joint military exercises with South Korea do not seem to be conditioned on any reciprocal move from the North. Even Moon’s dovish government, which had asked for suspension of the exercises during the Olympics, never argued for their abandonment. If Trump needs to maintain the impression of a diplomatic victory in the run-up to the US midterm elections, he may feel unable to walk back these concessions without tacitly admitting that his instincts were just plain wrong. Incredibly, Trump has anticipated this in his own way, saying: “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I'll find some kind of an excuse.”
At the very least, the North Korean regime has gained prestige and time to regroup. For now, it has received several unilateral gifts from the US. Kim may not believe his own luck in being the one to “frontload” the Singapore summit.
Yet this consideration should be balanced against other factors. Firstly, the lack of a timeline for implementing any of this applies to steps to be taken by the US. Trump has also confirmed that US sanctions on North Korea will stay in place (they are likely to be the subject of haggling with China). Trump’s unreliability – as demonstrated on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the G7 – may play in his favour in this case, because North Korea must know that the mooted visits to Washington and Pyongyang, and the curtailment of military exercises, can vanish into thin air at any moment.
Moreover, Kim was out on a limb in one important respect: his regime’s propaganda machine lavishly broadcast the summit to 26 million North Koreans, showing them Singapore’s glittering skyline and the kind of extraordinary lifestyle that economic development under changed circumstances might bring. Even in a totalitarian regime, this has consequences. North Koreans may well begin asking “where’s the beef?” if Kim maintains North Korea’s position as a country under siege – as it is with the current sanctions regime.
The rest is speculation at this point. Talks are under way, but what do they concern? Can Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his team extract from North Korea all the commitments that were not spelled out in Singapore, and that might justify the huge concessions Trump announced? If North Korea dismantles some missile sites or research facilities – as Trump unilaterally announced it would, probably in an effort at self-justification – but drags its feet on other issues, it will be the worst of both worlds for countries such as Japan and South Korea (even if Moon would be unable to publicly acknowledge this). Will China end most of its sanctions on North Korea unilaterally – in effect, sabotaging the negotiation by reducing pressure on Kim – or else coordinate this with the US? Will North Korea’s neighbours – above all, Japan – take precautionary security measures lest they lose out in a deal between Washington and Pyongyang? If Japan and South Korea no longer believe in US extended deterrence and fear that US troops will depart the Korean peninsula, they may decide to acquire nuclear weapons. This would further destabilise the region.
But, in plain English: we simply don’t know. The summit and ensuing talks do reduce the immediate risk of conflict. Beyond this, the only certainty in Trump’s method is that everything is uncertain. To remain optimistic, one has to believe that there will be positive developments of a kind unseen so far. That is an act of faith, not a rational conclusion.
 Ian Schwartz, “Full Replay: President Trump Holds Press Conference After North Korea Summit in Singapore”, RealClearPolitics, 12 June 2018, available at https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2018/06/12/full_replay_president_trump_holds_press_conference_after_north_korea_summit_in_singapore.html.