Thanks to the 12-hour difference in time between the United States and Singapore, I put in an all-nighter to cover the events and the post-summit analyses. In terms of the post-meeting coverage, I was disappointed by not being disappointed. As I expected, MSNBC and CNN were on permanent negative mode, featuring a success of pundits and panelists that offered one narrow negative view of the proceedings. They spun their comments consistent with their pre-summit predictive narratives.
In short, the contributors and analysts were a chorus of old guard, old ways personalities – many of whom were involved in those failed agreements of the past. They cannot see the differences President Trump has brought about because any success would make their failures even more obvious. The idea that they failed while this contemptible and incompetent President – in their view – might succeed is more than they can bear.
As much as I searched, I found no one with an alternative positive view of the summit on the anti-Trump networks. There was no balance – just propaganda based on biases and preconceived narratives. They declared the summit to be a failure. There were no hard commitments. The Agreement was just words on paper. North Korea will delay and break their promise as they had in the past. This was nothing but a photo-op to feed Trump’s giant ego. Even worse, Kim Jong-un gained everything, and America got nothing. That is really what the panels of parroting pundits really said – over and over.
So, is there a valid different opinion about the outcome of the summit? And what might that be?
First, let us consider the expectations of the summit. Critics said Trump failed because he did not get a detailed agreement on the how and when denuclearization will take place. That is a strawman argument. Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had repeatedly said that this was a starting point to work out the details. Both nations would agree to a process – and that is what happened.
The most advanced criticism by the media was that Kim gained everything and the United States got nothing. Central to that argument is that Kim’s main goal was to be elevated to the big screen by standing side-by-side with the most powerful leader in the world. The #NeverTrump folks claim that this meeting softened the image of Kim, hitherto universally viewed as one of the most murderous despots in the world today. Why do they think that they are the only ones who will remember the atrocities? Oh yeah! I forgot. The rest of us are stupid and gullible. Kim’s 15 minutes of fame has put him on a perilous perch. If he reneges on the Agreement, he is back to being “Rocketman” and the pariah of the international community.
The old guard diplomats predict that Kim will never give up his nukes and will break his promise. Why? Because that is what North Korea did to them and the poorly enforced deals that they crafted according to their Old World Order thinking.
So, why should we think of this deal differently?
The most obvious significant difference is that never before was there an agreement personally negotiated and signed by the two heads of state with the entire world as witnesses. What the #NeverTrump critics saw as mere pomp and circumstances, a flashy photo op, much ado about nothing. The rational and objective world saw a breakthrough. This summit made the Agreement more powerful and more enforceable than any of those other past agreements signed with the diplomatic equivalent of disappearing ink.
We must also consider who signed this Agreement – and why. Kim was not party to any of the previous agreements, and neither was Trump. These are two different men with two different aspirations.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim was facing the disintegration of his nation. He faces existing sanctions that threatened the regime with further international isolation and potential civil unrest – and the very real threat of another round of even more severe sanctions. His nation was crumbling around him.
Unlike the empty threats of past American administrations, Trump and his team had enlisted both China and Russia into the sanctions that triggered a UN resolution. In avoiding a Russian or Chinese veto, Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had done something unprecedented. Two of the nations most friendly to North Korea declared that Kim had to give up his nuclear weapons and his long-range missiles. That put significant additional pressure on Pyongyang.
In addition to the economic sanctions, Trump played the military card with credibility. Trump’s strategy was not responsive. He took on the knotty North Korea problem proactively. He called out Kim in no uncertain terms. This is a situation in which Trump’s pugnacious bellicosity was deployed with good results. Trump’s threat was so credible that it scared the hell out of Kim – and China, the international community and even the American public as a side effect. Everyone in the world wanted to do anything to avoid what was overly (but effectively) hyped as World War III.
Among these “sticks” there were two important “carrots” for Kim. The most important “carrot” is a commitment from the United States – and that means from the entire western world – that there would be no attempts at regime change – something that is almost a certainty if Kim does not give up the nukes in a verifiable program.
The next biggest “carrot” is the prospect of dramatic economic development in North Korea – prosperity for the nation and the people unlike anything experienced since before the yet unsettled Korean War. Trump gave Kim a vision of this future with a short video. Kim also saw the sights and sounds of Singapore – an economically thriving Asian nation.
This latter “carrot” may have a unique attractiveness to Kim. He is a young man, and from what little we know, he has an appetite for the good life. He also wants to be beloved by his people. Surely, he must know that the forced respect of a starving and oppressed people is very fragile.
The other different character in this Agreement is Donald Trump. In a sense, his critics are correct. He is unconventional. That is not a bad thing if you consider that the various conventional approaches of the past have failed. President Obama cautioned the newly elected Trump that North Korea would be his most intractable problem. Trump appears to have taken the former President’s warning to heart.
One cannot underestimate the positive effect of rattling the sabers. Trump’s steely-eyed threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was credible because he meant it. His entire administration – the Secretary of State, the UN Ambassador, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of the CIA and Homeland Security – all prepared for the prospect of military action. Defense Secretary Mattis announced to the world that the United States has a number of military options short of nuclear war.
When critics predict that Trump has been suckered and North Korea will again break their written commitment, they fail to understand that the twin swords of Damocles – sanctions and military action – have not been removed as options.
The major difference with Trump is he did not wish to just change the metrics of the moment – as past Presidents did – but to actually solve the problem, including the nukes, the protracted war and the North Korea’s inhumane policies. He successfully sold this strategy to allies and adversaries alike.
Critics claim that the United States and North Korea have two different definitions of denuclearization. Even if true, it means nothing. The American position has been made crystal clear and the language of the Agreement is unequivocal. Unlike his predecessors, Trump will not accept anything less than full compliance as the United States defines it.
One should not forget or underestimate the important role of South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump and Moon have formed as close a working relationship as any previous heads-of-state of the respective countries. Moon brought a new openness to the possibilities of rapprochement with the North. Even as Trump was leveling his most belligerent language at “Rocketman,” he gave a wink and a nod to North Korea’s involvement in the Seoul Olympics – a masterstroke of diplomacy on all sides.
Without any confirmation from Moon or Japan’s Shinzo Abe, many of the anti-Trump reporters have conjectured that Trump’s desire to bring home the troops from South Korea at some appropriate time in the future and to terminate the joint military exercises have caused great distress among those Asian allies. Since there is no intention to remove troops in the foreseeable future and the suspension of military exercises may depend on positive moves by Kim -- and can always be reinstated at any time -- it is likely that the media analysts are misjudging and misreporting actual responses. Moon made no mention of the military exercises in his public praise of the summit.
Considerable criticism has been heaped on Trump for saying nice things about a murderous despot. Ironically, these were many of the same voices that were so critical of Trump for saying nasty things about the same murderous despot. One can hardly enter into positive negotiation in an effort to change the paradigm by unloading a litany of insults. Part of diplomacy is playing nice/nice with people we do not like and do not admire. It is called pragmaticism – and Trump is only the latest example.
We can recall seeing photographs of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill sitting alongside Joseph Stalin – one of the Twentieth Century’s most murderous dictators. The result was winning World War II. President Nixon traveled to China to negotiate with Mao Tse-Tung – who murdered millions of his people. The result was a new friendlier relationship with China. President Reagan negotiated with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev – a man who headed an evil empire that cost the lives of millions. The result was the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Obama met with Raul Castro – and oppressive leader responsible for the imprisonment and deaths of thousands. The result was the opening of diplomatic relations.
While the anti-Trump media has declared all wins for Kim and none for Trump, that is simply false reporting. There were wins and losses on both sides…
Both Trump and Kim can claim a public relations victory. No amount of partisan bias can take away the fact that the meeting was a historic breakthrough. Though it is purely anticipatory, there is a general feeling – a belief – that this time really is different.
Both men gained a personal concession. The secession of bad-mouthing, as one. This has not only been good for them, personally, but good for international diplomacy.
Trump gained a secession of all nuclear and missile testing and the destruction of a nuclear facility and a missile testing site. He gained the freedom of American prisoners in North Korea. He received a commitment to seek out, identify and return the remains of thousands of our soldiers killed and missing in action some 70 years ago.
Outside of the photo op, Kim gained very little – and that is only a temporary benefit. Those gains awarded to him prematurely by reporters and analysts are all in the “if” category – prospects only. There can be relief from the sanctions, guaranteed job security, financial aid, the end of the Korean War, the end of military exercises on his border and the removal of troops from South Korea. However, none of these will happen unless Kim follows through on his pledge to terminate his nuclear program in a verifiable way.
Even reporters and pundits who see potential positive outcomes from these meetings proffer the preposterous argument that Trump is “the least important person” in the events that led up the summit. They give credit primarily to Kim, Moon, Xi, Abe and the doorman at the Shangri La Hotel. They may have all played a role – except the doorman, of course – but Trump was clearly the agent of change, the leader of the pack. These extreme partisan reports are important to note because they appropriately cast the shadow of suspicion and doubt over all those other overly negative spins.
Singapore was the first inning of the first game of a diplomatic world series, and already those aligned with the Trump resistance movement are predicting the outcome. Such premature and rash judgment reveal more of their bias than their intellectual judgment regardless of their resumes or former public positions. Their analyses are more the product of wishful thinking.
There is much more hard work to be done, and it will take a long time to see the final chapter, but there is more reason for optimism than at any time since the shooting in that long-ago war ended in a cease-fire – and armistice. Like his personality or not, like his policies not, Trump has taken control of the biggest and most dangerous international problem – and he is winning as he would say “yugely.”