It isn’t comprehensive. It’s barely a document. But the five-paragraph statement signed in Singapore Tuesday by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un was enough for the U.S. President to declare it “a pretty comprehensive document,” and for he and his North Korean counterpart to return home victorious.
It is an opening statement of good faith – an agreement to have talks that might lead to an agreement. In substance and language, it differs little from similar preliminary undertakings signed by North Korea and the United States (and sometimes other countries) in 1993, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2012, under former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Those earlier talks all involved far more planning and attention to compliance and verification. In all those cases, months and sometimes years of talks were eventually scuppered by North Korea’s recalcitrance.
The most significant words in this new agreement are found in its preamble: “…recognizing that mutual confidence building can promote the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un note the following.” The words “mutual confidence building” are the most substantive thing on the two pages.
What follows are four largely platitudinous commitments reiterating pledges made by Mr. Kim in earlier meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the architect of these talks. Three of the points – pledging a commitment to denuclearization and Korean unification – were almost identical to the three points agreed in a statement signed by U.S. and North Korean officials on June 11, 1993, when Bill Clinton and Mr. Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung agreed to talks.
But those words in the preamble, “mutual confidence building,” neatly summarize the totality of what took place in Singapore – and what was unique about this summit. Unlike previous summits, in which officials took preliminary steps and awaited responses that often took months or years, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim skipped straight to the victory lap. Absent any substantial new moves toward peace, this was primarily an exercise in bolstering their own self-confidence.
It will likely be of considerable political benefit both to Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. The North Korean dictator scored an extraordinary diplomatic and public-relations victory, in which a celebrity U.S. president spent two days praising him, without qualification, as a good man and a great leader of a successful country. When pressed on Mr. Kim’s mass killings of political opponents and deadly labour camps, Mr. Trump offered this apologia: “I believe it’s a rough situation over there… It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way, not just there.” Without having to sacrifice anything, Mr. Kim received the greatest and most public endorsement of his legitimacy ever delivered to a North Korean president on the international stage – and that alone more than justified the minor gestures required to reach this preliminary statement.
Mr. Trump will also gain personally and politically from this declaration. There are unlikely to be any further steps toward peace for several months, if ever – and that works to Mr. Trump’s advantage. He can now campaign for Republicans in the November congressional elections as a statesman who has signed an international peace agreement. Regardless of what, if anything, becomes of this statement, Mr. Trump will be able to cite it, in every speech and interview, as a crowning negotiating accomplishment. That it is very likely to fail or collapse is not an issue – that has been true of almost every agreement Mr. Trump has negotiated during his career, and has not prevented him from selling himself as a great negotiator.
Holding the victory celebrations before any real talks have begun is characteristic behaviour from both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. And, from one perspective, it could be a fresh approach – cynicism aside, mutual confidence building is a pretty crucial political component of most international agreements. And by starting on such a high note, both leaders have raised the stakes in the event of a failure – it now means a personal loss of face, theoretically, for both of them.
But there’s no evident pathway to an actual resolution of the security problems between North Korea and its foes.
Bruce Klingner, a conservative former CIA director for the Koreas and adviser to previous North Korean talks, was dismissive: “This is very disappointing,” he declared on Tuesday. “Each of the four main points was in previous documents with North Korea, some in a stronger, more encompassing way.”
Mr. Trump, characteristically, brushed off those criticisms. In what may be his most prescient statement, he addressed the likelihood of the actual talks failing: “I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong,’” he told reporters, and then smiled: “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.” That, too, is what three presidents before him have done.