But will the Trump-Kim summit come to be seen as the dawn of a new, positive era in relations between North Korea and the United States? Or is this just another blip along the road from a president whose crude foreign policy ethos — assuming he has one — was recently summed up by a White House official as, “We're America, bitch”?
For now, the summit seems to be a Rorschach test, splitting opinions about its significance and impact along often-predictable lines. Among the Korea-watching crowd, the verdict appears largely negative. Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a well-respected expert on North Korea, offered one of the harshest takes: “We expected it would be a flop, but it’s floppier than anything we expected. The [post-summit] declaration is pretty much meaningless.”
“This is all going to break down,” Kelly Magsamen of the Center for American Progress said on Twitter. Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is now the conservative Heritage Foundation's top expert on North Korea, called the lack of new details in the agreement “very disappointing,” a point echoed by a former negotiator with Pyongyang, Robert Gallucci. “Cynicism, or at least skepticism, would not be entirely inappropriate right now,” Gallucci wrote in an article for Korea-news site 38 North.
But there were some glimmers of a more hopeful attitude. Victor Cha, the Georgetown professor who, just a few months ago, lost a potential Trump administration job over the threat of military force against North Korea, offered a kind of grim optimism in the New York Times. “In the case of North Korea, there are never good policy options — there are only choices between the bad and the worse,” Cha wrote, praising Trump's unconventional approach while also acknowledging the pitfalls of the summit.
John Delury, one of the most consistent pro-engagement voices in Korea-watching circles, played down the aim of denuclearization in an interview with CNN, focusing instead on Kim's seemingly sunny attitude during the summit. “I think there is another story here, which is Kim Jong Un's readiness to basically normalize North Korea's relations with the U.S. and with the world,” he explained, suggesting that earning Kim's trust is a bigger opportunity than ending his nuclear program. “We need to pay attention to that, too.”
Delury's optimism may reflect his location: While many North Korea experts are based in the United States, he is a professor at Seoul's Yonsei University. In South Korea, where President Moon Jae-in played a key role in pushing for the summit, the mood seems to be optimistic.
Writing in the New Yorker, E. Tammy Kim said that although Trump is unpopular among South Koreans, the drive for peace with North Korea was widely supported in the country. “I’ve yet to meet a single Korean who isn’t willing to express optimism, in some form, about the prospects for peace and reunification,” Kim wrote. “Nearly everyone uses the same common phrase to express a basic optimism: '잘될 것 같아요'—'I think it’ll work out.'”
Of course, Trump's announcement that he will halt U.S.-South Korea “war games” — or rather, military exercises — and his expressed desire to get U.S. troops out of South Korea will cause anxiety among many South Korean conservatives. Some hard-liners have responded angrily, even questioning the nature of the U.S.-South Korea alliance under Trump.
But Trump's announcement may not deter liberals such as Moon, who have generally taken a more ambiguous view of the alliance (we'll get a good sense of just how dominant these liberals are, by the way, after local elections on Wednesday — some Korean outlets are expecting a landslide in their favor). Nor will the prospect of major changes to the U.S. presence in South Korea upset North Korea's other neighbors — China and Russia — who had long pushed for a “freeze-for-freeze” deal that would see North Korea stop weapons testing in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
As The Washington Post's Emily Rauhala noted, China's foreign ministry was quick to praise the outcome of the summit, which experts argued was largely in line with Beijing's hopes. “China's objectives on the Korean Peninsula have been to maintain stability, encourage North Korea’s denuclearization and reduce U.S. influence,” Abraham Denmark, the director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said to Rauhala.
“Beijing,” he said, “got everything that they wanted.”
But the outcome was less positive for Japan's Shinzo Abe, who portrayed himself as a Trump whisperer and bonded with the U.S. president over rounds of golf. Though the Japanese prime minister was no doubt pleased that Trump raised the issue of Japanese abductees with the North Korean leader, he may have been dismayed that Trump did not follow his hard line on Kim.
Things can change, of course. Trump has proved himself unpredictable, and there are indications that some things he said may have been inaccurate (questions abound about the whether a “war games” suspension will actually take place). North Korea's record on keeping to its word is pretty shaky, too. Moreover, the statement that Trump and Kim signed was brief, full of recycled ideas and vague promises. Views of it diverge, in large part, because it is just ink on a paper, lacking in any real practical specifics.
History was made in Singapore, but it's a rough draft. We'll have to fill in the details — and work out the ending — later.
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