It was like prom for Asia security watchers. The surprise invitation came out of the blue and was accepted, seemingly on a whim.
The Singapore summit quickly became the will-they-or-won’t-they event of the season, quite nearly derailed in fits of pique, saved only by an emotional exchange of letters. With abundant pageantry that kept experts glued to the coverage throughout the night, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un finally shook hands on Sentosa Island — the first presidential-level meeting between an American leader and his North Korean counterpart, with the U.S. Stars and Stripes flying alongside the flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Here are three takeaways from the much-anticipated meeting.
The two sides didn’t agree on what “denuclearization” meant — but maybe that allowed them to talk.
Months before Trump and Kim met in Singapore, experts began to call attention to a festering bilateral issue: The two sides did not share the same definition of “denuclearization,” despite the fact that this was the subject of the summit.
U.S. officials appeared to be calling for the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (or as experts refer to it, CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — unilateral disarmament. North Koreans referred obliquely to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which would include an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance and removal of U.S. troops from the peninsula — removing that threat from North Korea’s doorstep.
Paradoxically, failing to clearly define the talks’ objective was what allowed diplomacy to proceed, because each side could believe — or say it believed — that its objectives were in sight.
That approach to denuclearization hit a speed-bump when Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called for Pyongyang’s “Libya-style” disarmament — the type of unilateral nuclear defanging that preceded Moammar Gaddafi’s ouster and bloody demise. The summit was briefly canceled after the Bolton fracas; when it was rescheduled, neither side again attempted a clear “denuclearization” definition.
The week before the summit, the Trump administration still did not have an internal working definition. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested a phrasing that combined the U.S. and North Korean interpretations. The U.S. side had still not secured a substantive pledge from North Korea to denuclearize on the eve of the talks. The joint statement reportedly commits the parties to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — a phrase that elides both interpretations without clarifying objectives. Definitional vagaries allowed Washington and Pyongyang to get to the summit despite the odds, and to slip out of it without concrete progress on the central goal.
The loophole remains big enough for a road-mobile ICBM.
There’s no substitute for a good national security process.
The Singapore summit was a real-time test of a general Trumpian foreign policy hypothesis: By functioning in a highly unpredictable manner, could the president cow allies and adversaries alike, wresting U.S. advantage from chaos?
From the impulsive decision to accept the invitation of a nuclear-armed pariah dictator with no prior diplomatic process, to the dizzying nature of the preparations, even senior White House staff were skeptical whether the summit could be properly executed.
After the summit was called off and rescheduled, the administration tapped three veteran Asia experts to negotiate directly with the North Koreans in hopes of crafting a quick framework agreement. That’s the usual process for summit diplomacy: Go in with an agreement loosely in place so that the leaders can show up for the handshake and photo ops.
But the White House did not give the team the political backing needed to extract concessions, and the team did not include any arms control or nuclear experts. The National Security Council, the primary decision-making body of senior U.S. security officials, did not convene once in advance of the summit, suggesting the president had received little guidance or backing from top aides. Just hours before it began, leaders from each side still did not have complete agendas.
The U.S. president may wear his lack of preparation as a badge of honor, but one can’t help but wonder: If expert negotiators had been given more than two weeks, might they have been able to secure some modest but concrete concessions? With time, resources and political backing, could they have delivered meaningful caps on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs through serious arms control negotiations? Real diplomatic opportunities may have been lost in the pandemonium.
Trump moved the goal posts to proclaim his own victory — and gave one to Kim.
For many weeks, it seemed that the Trump administration was setting its summit objectives impossibly high: Nothing short of full denuclearization, accomplished in one sitting.
After Bolton’s “Libya model” gaffe, however, the U.S. side began to dilute its objectives. What was once a one-shot meeting became the beginning of a process; the objective of unilateral disarmament was transformed into a mission of building relationships. The president emphasized the importance of establishing chemistry and building bilateral ties, making it clear that he craved a positive interpersonal interaction. He even mitigated his own hyperbole, reducing his prediction of a “terrific” outcome to only a “modified success.”
Personal diplomacy can be useful in its own right, allowing leaders to collect intelligence and divine intentions. But scored on the metrics that Trump and his team had originally laid out, the Singapore summit should have kicked off a process that could result in an arms control regime more rigorous than the Iran nuclear deal.
While redefining victory, the U.S. president handed a victory to his North Korean counterpart. Kim’s father and grandfather yearned for presidential-level meetings. Trump offered Kim precisely that chance to meet on equal footing. Kim kept the summit on track when it was nearly doomed, bolstering his domestic and international legitimacy. In the process, he made no meaningful concessions and won the cancellation of U.S.-South Korean military exercises.
Meanwhile, China and South Korea are already easing up on economic sanctions. The multilateral nature of those sanctions helped bring North Korea to the table. With Trump increasingly isolated from the United States’ traditional allies, it will be difficult for him to muster the coordinated international political will to keep that pressure on.
The upshot of all this? A grandiose spectacle with few concrete commitments. Diplomacy-as-usual may be less entertaining than the past three months’ of anticipation and pageantry. If the United States ever hopes to contain the threats posed by North Korea, however, bread-and-butter diplomatic efforts will need to come next.
Mira Rapp-Hooper is a senior research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.