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13 June 2018updated 14 Jun 2018 3:15pm

Trump’s summit with Kim was all theatre, no substance

Both men understand that it is perceptions – the selling of narratives – rather than facts that really matter.   

By Nicky Woolf

On the evening of 11 June, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, didn’t sleep. The following morning, two of the world’s most volatile and unpredictable leaders – Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un – would come face-to-face in Singapore, the first time an American president had met his North Korean counterpart.

Would Trump offend Kim with his bizarre jerk-handshake? Would Kim insult Trump somehow? Would Armageddon ensue?

Part of the reason for Moon’s sleeplessness will have been Trump’s erratic, laissez-faire attitude. The US president said before the summit that he would know “within the first minute” whether he would bond with Kim because of his “feel” for business relationships. Trump had not read any briefing books; he had not studied; he was going to wing it. “We will be fine!” Trump tweeted breezily the evening before.

As the two motorcades converged on an upscale hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, the tension was marked. Thousands of reporters had converged for the on-again-off-again summit. What would happen?

When Kim and Trump met, the first handshake was watched closely for what it might reveal about the mood of the two leaders. Both were grim-faced at first. But when Trump guided Kim’s hand almost tenderly into his for a second time, the tension seemed to fade and Kim smiled broadly. The pair were soon cracking jokes.

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It was perhaps unsurprising that they gelled. Both men understand that it is perceptions – the selling of narratives – rather than facts that really matter. Both have power based on lies and misperception or the manipulation of truth. Both were ready for a performance – and not much more. After a day of meetings in which no aides except two translators were present for the first 40 minutes, the pair presented their
joint agreement.

It did not take long for the world to realise that while the document’s tone was amiable in style, it was devoid of substance; it “reaffirms” North Korea’s dedication to “the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”; but there was nothing more concrete.

“Lovely theatre,” James Edward Hoare, a former UK diplomat who opened the British embassy in Pyongyang, remarked when we spoke. “Lots of razzmatazz. Lots of noise. Really not much [else].” The agreement itself, Hoare said, was “pretty bland… short even on aspirations, let alone detail”. Citing North Korea’s history of making landmark promises and then reneging on them, Hoare compared Trump’s victorious attitude to Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace for our time” speech on his return from meeting Hitler in Munich in 1938. “That,” he said, “didn’t last long.”

The problem was partly that the summit had been arranged backwards. It was a dumbshow, planned at short notice, with no attention paid to what agreement would emerge. “Normally with such a meeting at such a high level, a lot of real work would have been done beforehand – you’d never announce the meeting unless you were sure something would come out,” Hoare told me. “It’s going to be as tough as it’s always been to get an agreement for all sides.”

There are several problems with the agreement, most notably the absence of any kind of system for verifying the Kim regime’s actions. North Korea has agreed to such frameworks before, and later changed course. Asked by reporters about this afterwards, Trump simply said that he “trusts” Kim on a personal level – an assurance that will not help President Moon’s insomnia.

Nor will Trump’s rambling and incoherent post-summit press conference, which appeared retroactively to confect details of the agreement. When Trump casually told reporters that he had decided to cease the joint war-game training operations the US military conducts with South Korean forces, it was without having first notified  the South Korean government, Moon included. Since no one was present to take notes in the meeting with Kim, we may never know exactly what was and was not discussed.

“The summit, in a sense is the easy part,” said Glyn Ford, a former Labour MEP, a member of the European Parliament’s Korean Peninsula Delegation and the author of North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival. “The more difficult part will be getting a negotiated agreement; and the really difficult part will be making sure it’s implemented.” Ford is optimistic about the first step, predicting that political pressure on both sides could lead to an agreement “before the [US] midterm elections”, which are in November. “But the problem,” he told me, “will be over the next decade, when it comes to implementing it.”

One potential obstacle is that Trump and Kim appear to be divided on what “complete denuclearisation of the peninsula” means. Trump understands this to be the reduction to zero of North Korea’s nuclear programme and arsenal. But for North Korea, in the past this has also meant the removal of the US’s nuclear umbrella from South Korea – something unthinkable.

Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair and the UK’s chief negotiator in Northern Ireland, told me that the summit went according to plan – for Kim, at least. “He had a very clear strategy, even back in November when he said he had weapons that could hit the US, then from January, reaching out to the South Koreans. He has been leading this dance, and will continue to do so after the summit. That may not be a bad thing.”

The most revealing moment of Trump’s press conference in Singapore was his response to being asked how he would respond if Kim failed to deliver on his promise of denuclearisation. “I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’” Trump then seemed to suffer a moment of accidental self-awareness. “Well,” he added, “I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that. I’ll find some excuse.” It may be his most honest comment as president.

Nicky Woolf is editor of New Statesman America

This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?