Taking 20 steps into the demilitarized zone north of the border between South Korea and North Korea, president Donald Trump made history as the first US president to enter what is known as “the Hermit Kingdom” on Sunday.
“I never expected to meet you at this place,” effused North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who appeared – according to CNN – “overjoyed” in the moment.
Of course he did. For Kim, the meeting – as with his two previous meetings with Trump – represent public relations triumphs of the highest order. He has managed to stratospherically elevate his own standing internationally by palling up to Trump, as well as cementing his position at home.
For Trump, North Korea represents the most obvious political opportunism. He gets to represent himself as a dealmaker, even though all previous experience shows that the Kim regime is simply lying about even the small concessions Trump claims to have won from them. His showmanship around the event – playing it as a spontaneous meeting – underscore this idea.
“Trump may have taken  steps into North Korea; I want to know what positive steps Kim Jong Un is taking,” says Brett Bruen, the president of consulting firm Global Situation Room and former US diplomat who served as director of global engagement in president Obama’s White House. “It’s going to take more than a grip and grin to get to peace. Where’s the plan? Where’s the process?”
“We need more than a splash and flash, we need a strategy and benchmarks,” Bruen says. “We were promised after the first summit in Singapore we would see results. Instead we have seen a series of propaganda wins for Pyongyang, we’ve seen their nuclear program continue unabated. This isn’t progress – it’s strengthening the North Korean’s hand in negotiations and militarily.”
The meeting, along with the previous summits, are simply “political theatrics and superficial tactics,” Bruen says. Indeed, there is no evidence that North Korea has been following through on its promises to Trump about denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – or has any plans to do so, however much they promise Trump to his face.
This fact is underscored by the dramatic contrast with Trump’s approach to the situation in Iran, tearing up the deal which would have prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons simply because it carried Barack Obama’s imprimatur.
But the political theatre is all the more shameful because of its transparency. Trump even praised North Korea for returning its hostage, American Otto Warmbier – despite the fact that they returned Warmbier in a state where he had been tortured to the brink of death (he died shortly after his return).
In Kim, Trump has found a partner in showmanship. But the partnership benefits Kim much more than it benefits the US, and the reason is this: Kim is thinking tactically. He knows that, having set up the show, Trump needs anything which looks like a win, especially as he stares down the barrel at a tricky reelection fight in 2020. He will present anything as a dealmaking victory, so Kim has all the leverage he needs to offer America symbolic concessions while taking all offers in return.
It’s bad politics, but even worse diplomacy.