Meeting in Singapore on Tuesday, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a feel-good document that outlines lofty ambition but no specifics. It could -- emphasis on could -- eventually lead to substantive negotiations. It could -- emphasis on could -- eliminate the threat of nuclear attack against the US by North Korea.
Or it could lead to nothing but the next round of trouble.
That’s because Kim’s words alone, his signature on a piece of paper, are worth nothing. Just as the promises his father and grandfather made to previous presidents amounted to wasted breath.
Yes, the handshake between Trump and Kim was historic. Seeing the two men face each other was surreal. They smiled and patted each other on the shoulder. No sitting American president had ever met with the leader of isolated, belligerent North Korea.
Whatever comes next in this tense, unstable relationship, the two leaders conducted diplomacy rather than insult-flinging. That’s progress. They now know something of each other’s style and outlook. Let’s call this meeting a surprise success and hope for more. If the two leaders produce the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as promised, you’ll see them together again in Oslo.
Reasons for skepticism: North Korea, one of the world’s nastiest regimes, follows a cynical playbook. The main purpose of the state is to serve and protect the regime. It does this by keeping the world at bay, and treating its own citizens as virtual prisoners. No American president has been able to bring in North Korea from the cold. Nor has Trump -- yet.
To Kim, nuclear weapons offer protection against regime change from without. Ever since the 1950-53 Korean War, through three generations of Kim family leadership, North Korea has existed in a state of perpetual quasi-conflict with the United States and South Korea. Tension levels would rise and fall but never end. As the North pursued a nuclear weapons program, Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried cutting deals to coax North Korea out of its dangerous isolation. Those efforts ultimately collapsed because North Korea couldn’t be trusted to keep up its end. Even with as many as 2 million North Koreans starving to death in the 1990s, the regime stuck to its nuclear brinkmanship.
President Barack Obama chose not to engage, betting that “strategic patience” eventually would win concessions. He was wrong. The North kept working on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, escalating the threat against the US. Trump dealt with this tinderbox by throwing lit matches at it. He and Kim exchanged insults. The White House hinted about delivering a military “bloody nose” to North Korea to break the stalemate. Scary-sounding stuff.
Yet in a way, Trump was taking a page from the North’s tradition of bellicose propaganda. The president, who prides himself on his negotiating skills, likes to play good cop/crazy cop. As unnerving as he might sound threatening North Korea, he’d love to bag the elusive deal to defang Pyongyang, the deal that eluded other presidents.
As for what Kim may be thinking, he’s certainly in the strongest bargaining position in his country’s history because of the nuclear arsenal. The fact that Trump took the meeting shows how this power relationship has tilted. The US president said he’d hold off on war games with South Korea as the two sides negotiate, so he’s betting on a season of detente.
If the positive approach lasts, both men have much to gain. Kim could trade his nuclear program for peace guarantees, economic aid and diplomatic recognition, coaxing North Korea from its cave. Trump would be triumphant, not just in his own mind, but in everyone’s.
Editorial by Chicago Tribune