Kim Jong Un outmanoeuvres Donald Trump in Singapore
The North Korean leader has proved himself the cannier deal maker
The surreal meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Tuesday was perhaps best summed up by the performance of former basketball star Dennis Rodman. Wearing his “Make America Great Again” red baseball cap, dark sunglasses and a shirt emblazoned with his marijuana cryptocurrency sponsor, Mr Rodman broke down in tears on CNN as he declared June 12 a great day for the whole world. Mr Trump’s rambling press conference at the conclusion of the summit only enhanced the aura of reality television spectacle. In more than an hour of banter with a room full of reporters, the US president revealed a list of American concessions that went well beyond anything Mr Kim could have imagined.
Along with a promise to end joint military exercises with South Korea, Mr Trump said he expected a formal peace treaty between the two countries would be signed soon and indicated his strong desire to eventually remove around 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea (it does not appear to have been consulted before Mr Trump decided to unilaterally end the joint exercises).
In that context, the short joint statement signed by the two men can only be interpreted as a victory for the North Korean dictator. Apart from bland commitments on both sides to establish new relations and work towards peace, the document committed Pyongyang to merely “work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”. Mr Trump chose to ignore the fact that Mr Kim’s regime interprets that phrase as the removal of America’s nuclear umbrella from South Korea in exchange for denuclearisation in the north.
In outlining the concessions he had extracted from Mr Kim, the US president complained he had not had enough time at this summit to agree a more comprehensive “de-nuke” agreement.
He lingered on Pyongyang’s commitment to return the remains of American soldiers killed or captured in the Korean war and talked vaguely about Mr Kim’s promise to destroy a missile engine testing site at some point in the future. Both promises are meaningless from Mr Kim’s perspective.
Mr Trump did say tough sanctions on North Korea would not be lifted until real progress was made towards denuclearisation. But enforcement of those sanctions is largely in the hands of China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner and benefactor, and on Tuesday a spokesperson for the Chinese government insisted sanctions should be eased to reward North Korean commitments to peace.
If Mr Trump changes his mind and attempts to ramp up sanctions again it is now very unlikely China would be willing to enforce them. Beijing has watched this summit from the sidelines but will celebrate Mr Trump’s talk of troop drawdowns and cancelling US military exercises, which he called “very expensive” and “very provocative”.
One of China’s most treasured goals is the eventual removal of US troops from its neighbourhood. At one point in his press conference, Mr Trump provided some insight into his mindset when he asked everyone to “think of it from a real estate perspective”.
He advised Mr Kim to imagine the potential of his “beautiful beaches” if he were to stop using them for artillery exercises and built condos on them instead. Buried in these musings is the valid point that North Korea has much to gain if it can get support from the US and its capitalist neighbours to help restore its devastated Communist economy.
But if it can get help with building its economy while keeping its nuclear weapons, that is certainly the preferred option. It is quite possible Mr Trump will return to the US and change his mind about some of the promises he made. It is also possible his apparently overwhelming display of goodwill towards the dictator will lead to real concessions on the part of Pyongyang. But for now Mr Kim has shown himself to be the cannier dealmaker.