The Photo-Op Summit

America isn't going to achieve any of its stated objectives by meeting with North Korea in Singapore. And that's okay.

Kim Jong Un impersonator Howard X and Donald Trump impersonator Dennis Alan pose for photographers during a visit to Merlion Park in Singapore on June 8. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Kim Jong Un impersonator Howard X and Donald Trump impersonator Dennis Alan pose for photographers during a visit to Merlion Park in Singapore on June 8. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump are both in Singapore, their meeting set for Tuesday. By the time Americans wake up Tuesday morning, it will all be over, with Kim disarmed and a grinning Trump holding a Nobel Peace Prize.

Just kidding. But it does raise a question: Where should we set our expectations?

My advice is low — lower than you think. Despite the best efforts by folks like the New York Times’s Mark Landler to normalize this process, it is not normal. It is not disruptive, nor does it reflect it a strategy. It is, by any traditional measure, a goat rodeo.

Summits are basically pageantry. That’s not to say that summits are not useful. They are! But a primary value of a summit is to create a public deadline by which the parties need to agree to resolve their differences about something. If the working-level officials can’t work out a deal, it all collapses in embarrassment to both parties. And that’s usually a successful strategy (although tell that to the rest of the leaders of the G-7).

But in the context of U.S.-North Korea relations, a summit is inherently asymmetric, because its very existence confers international recognition to the North Koreans. Kim Jong Un is desperately looking for international recognition of North Korea as a country in good standing, of his right to rule it, and of the legitimacy of his possession of nuclear weapons. That’s why his motorcade had, not one, but two camera-mounted vehicles. North Korean propaganda will be living off this summit for a long time.

The Landler piece makes the rather sad effort to compare this summit to the process in 2000 when the Clinton administration closed in on a missile deal with North Korea. This summit, with apologies to Michael Lind, is to genuine diplomatic efforts (like the one undertaken by Bill Clinton) what the rides at Disney’s Tomorrowland are to real rockets. The rides are entertaining as hell. But they do not represent a way to get where we want to go.

In 2000, the Clinton administration carefully offered high-level visits only after each round of concessions by the North Koreans. The Clinton administration was dangling a visit by Clinton himself to Pyongyang in exchange for the final round of concessions by the late Kim Jong Il when time ran out. The George W. Bush administration made noises about picking up where Clinton left off, but did not.

Trump has simply given the North Koreans these meetings without making any progress at all. That North Korea does not intend to abandon its nuclear forces seems clear from the lead-up. When Matt Pottinger — the National Security Council official who Donald Trump claimed did not exist — explained that the hastily scheduled meeting on June 12 was all but impossible (June 12 is in 10 minutes,” he said), he wasn’t talking about logistics. He was talking about the lack of an agenda, which is an enormous hindrance to U.S. objectives but benefits North Korea. That’s why the North Koreans ghosted U.S. officials in Singapore. And that’s why administration officials are complaining that the North Koreans have been “wildly inconsistent in pre-meetings.”

So the North Koreans want the summit, for sure. But Kim is not giving up his weapons. He isn’t even paying for his own hotel room.

Trump wants the summit, too. Look at how Michael Wolff described Trump’s perspective on his trip last year to Saudi Arabia: It was a “get-out-of-Dodge godsend” to look presidential and escape the terrible media cycle and the pressures of the Mueller investigation.

The fact that Trump has cared mostly about the pageantry of the event is telling. Just like Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump is doing this to bolster his domestic standing. He’s not sweating the details because he doesn’t care about them. His meeting with Kim Jong Un is apparently going to be mano a mano with only translators present. Trump doesn’t care what the experts think, and he’s not willing to have Mike Pompeo there to take credit or John Bolton present to sabotage it.

In a strange way, though, that is the good news. Despite the total catastrophe of the G-7 summit, Trump declared it a “tremendously successful” meeting. It seems unlikely he will be anything less than ebullient about his meeting with Kim Jong Un. And why would Kim contradict him? After all, make a few nice noises about denuclearization, and you can expect Trump to offer a White House visit.

But maybe we don’t want to get to disarmament; or, at least, perhaps we have other interests in the meantime that deserve our attention right now. (You know, like ensuring the world doesn’t perish in a nuclear holocaust triggered by a diplomatic dispute.) The only way this process succeeds is if Donald Trump is willing to redefine success by abandoning decades of bipartisan but ineffective policy demanding that North Korea disarm as a precondition to everything else. One option would be for Trump to adopt the South Korean approach, which is to defer any concrete action on disarmament until the future, essentially accepting North Korea as a law-abiding country, Kim’s right to rule it, and his possession of nuclear weapons. If Trump does, then I think Kim will offer commitments to freeze his program, continuing the moratorium on certain long-range missile tests and nuclear explosions. Kim may also make pledges not to export his capabilities, to adopt softer rhetoric about his nuclear program, and accept denuclearization as an aspiration. But he’s not disarming, not anytime soon.

This is going to be hard for a lot of people to swallow, whether they are Republicans like Bolton who have treated every effort to negotiate with the North Koreans as appeasement, or Democrats like Chuck Schumer who is nearly as desperate to get to the right of a Republican president on a security as he is to get in front of a camera. If Trump is willing to make them swallow it, then that will be a good thing. If not — if he turns on Kim like he turned on “very dishonest and weak” Justin Trudeau — then we are in for a rough ride.

Correction, June 11, 2018: The Trump-Kim summit will end early Tuesday morning in the United States. A previous version of this article mistakenly said the summit would end Monday morning. 

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk
Tag: Media

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