The summit left a hazy agreement but, beneath the rhetoric, another scenario was born that strengthens the North Korean dictator and will leave the United States with costly strategic setbacks.
The historic summit in Singapore could be summarized by the photo of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shaking hands. This was the dominant goal for both of them and for very different reasons. Nothing more could be expected beyond this image, except the delivery of a hazy agreement without dates or outlines, with the generalized goal of denuclearizing the peninsula. In other words, not the denuclearization of the feudal northern kingdom, which is what Washington proposed to its public — the CVID program, which refers to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible destruction of nuclear weapons in North Korea.
What did remain firm was the plan that Pyongyang came prepared to defend, with clear strategic support from its Chinese ally: the elimination of military tension in the entire northeast Asian region. In other words, a setback for U.S. influence in the area. That is the remarkable result of this exchange.
But there’s more. The controversial result of the meeting was accompanied by two special bonuses that Trump presented to his counterpart, surely in gratitude for that photo which will be placed in the gallery next to the photo of Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong or the photo of Ronald Reagan in discussion with Mikhail Gorbachev. This is where you notice what goes beyond the picture of the handshake. These rewards consisted of accepting gradual, non-specific steps toward a fuzzy denuclearization, which will be done, says Trump, “as fast as it can mechanically and physically be done.”
The other perk, which was also not included in the declaration, is even more revealing. The tycoon president announced the suspension of military exercises with South Korea and the rest of the U.S. allies, a previous demand of the Beijing dictatorship (and Moscow). It is interesting that Trump referred to these maneuvers in practically the same tone and language as Kim, describing them as “war games . . . very provocative . . . and inappropriate.”
This unexpected announcement displayed the American leader’s style of negotiating spontaneously and without prior consultation and, incidentally, absent any detailed preparation for different scenarios that could have occurred during this visit. The new item surprised the South Korean government, which had not been advised and had no official prepared reaction. But the most troubling reaction came from America’s own military command in the region, acknowledging through its spokeswoman, Col. Jennifer Lovett, that it “has received no updated guidance on execution or cessation of training exercises.” The Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drills, involving hundreds of thousands of South Korean soldiers, 20,000 U.S. soldiers as well as Air Force and nuclear submarines, are planned for August.* Spokeswoman Lovett remarked that hand-in-hand preparations with Seoul were continuing in spite of what the newspapers were reporting.
Trump can argue in his favor that he did not concede to North Korea because he kept economic sanctions against the country intact. But that is a formality. This historic rapprochement dissolves the rather symbolic barriers that China still maintains against its complicated border associate, to whom it has provided every kind of assistance in spite of U.N. sanctions that Beijing also approved.
Kim has taken advantage of the American president’s pathological need to be important in order to move to the next stage of his national project. He has managed to transform himself from being a despicable dictator who massacres his own people into a “talented” statesman who can sit on equal terms with the helmsman of the major global power. Trump, who typically feels more comfortable with these types of people than his own allies, considers him “a transformational leader,” a concept that, in reality, refers to leaders whose followers are voluntary, not forced.
Kim sought the photo to achieve a sense of acknowledgment. With this, he has surpassed his father and his grandfather, founder of the despotic dynasty that he heads. The next step is the commencement of investment, which will allow his country to grow without the immediate loss of the military power that brought him to this moment. And with the “guarantees of security” which Washington just conceded at this summit.
Trump is entertaining the idea that this game of seduction at any cost will eventually separate Pyongyang from Beijing. This may be a risky proposition. It is sufficient to observe that the most important picture from this meeting is a détente in the region that is moving away from the U.S. This is what a patient and astute China is trying to achieve, playing the game so that the other side says what it wants to hear.
*Editor’s note: The South Korean and U.S. governments agreed to suspend these joint military drills on June 19. Additionally, based on figures from previous years, the number of South Korean soldiers is closer to 50,000.