What a difference a year makes. Perhaps the most terrifying moments of a terrifying first term for America’s impulsive president involved the war of words between Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un. Kim called Trump a “dotard”. Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea tested missiles that could, theoretically, strike at targets in mainland America. Armageddon seemed imminent.
On Tuesday, in front of a towering wall of dozens of flags of both countries, the two former nemeses finally met and shook hands, smiling broadly like old friends. Any way you look at it, this was an historic occasion; the first time such a meeting, between a North Korean leader and an American president, had ever taken place.
Then they went in to a closed-door working lunch – the menu included beef short ribs and sweet-and-sour pork, as well as Trump’s favourite dessert, ice-cream – emerging later to jointly sign a document that Trump called “comprehensive”.
What many had described as Trump’s evolution of Nixon’s “madman” strategy – unpredictable behaviour designed to force an opponent to make concessions – what the New Republic called Trump’s “crazy guy” strategy appears to have worked. Possibly this is because, unlike Nixon, Trump is genuinely an unknown quantity. No one knows whether he would actually push the button; Trump does not read briefings, and does not seem fully always to understand things he says. “Take him seriously, but not literally,” was his defenders’ last way of understanding him, but many feared that approach in nuclear diplomacy would lead to disaster.
But, in this limited instance, it did seem to work. In part, this was because, in Trump, Kim may have seen an opening to win concessions and even friendship from an America that the constraints of normal diplomacy would never have allowed to happen. Barack Obama, when he mooted a similar idea for a summit, was excoriated by conservatives for considering consorting with dictators. For Trump, of course, that chorus of outrage was silent.
“It was not easy to get here,” Kim said before the meeting began. “The past worked as fetters on our limbs, and the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward.”
“But we overcame all of them,” he added, “and we are here today.”
In a joint press conference following the closed-door meeting, Trump said that the summit marked the beginning of a “terrific” relationship with Kim, and that denuclearisation will begin “very quickly”. It is unclear exactly what “denuclearisation … of the Korean Peninsula”, as outlined in the document the pair signed, means; will US troops be pulled out entirely? In the past, North Korea has used the phrase to mean America’s ability to strike North Korean targets with nuclear weapons; of course, America is unlikely to scale back its nuclear arsenal.
The document does not go into specifics, but it provides a framework for ongoing negotiations towards a thaw of relations, something Kim’s father, who met with then-secretary of state Madeline Albright, never managed to achieve. It is not a direct commitment, but a statement of intent. Follow-up negotiations will now begin between US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and North Korean authorities. Though Trump called it “comprehensive,” the document does not contain a concrete path to nuclear de-escalation.
But for both men it is clear that much more important to them than the content of the document is the perception game. The meeting puts both leaders in the position that making peace is the only way to save face – something both men are keen on.
The love overflowed between the two: that they had personal chemistry was obvious. Trump praised Kim, saying he had a “great personality … very smart. Good combination,” and gave him a rare glimpse inside the presidential limousine, a heavily armoured Cadillac known as “the Beast”. He said the North Korean dictator was a “talented man” who “loves his country very much”, and told reporters that the meeting would lead to “more and more and more” and said that he would “absolutely” invite Kim to the White House. Kim, for his part, said that the world “will see a major change.”
But what does it mean?
Kim’s international stature has gone almost overnight from pariah to darling. He is being courted by China, by Japan, by South Korea, by the US. A lot can still go wrong, but the signal he has sent is that North Korea is coming in from the cold. The meeting represented just a part of the his strategy; it came on the heels of a rare trip by train to China, and then a near-unprecedented meeting with the South Korean president at the border between their countries.
In fact, this meeting was also a success for South Korean president Moon Jae-In, who has long wanted to thaw the stand-off at his nation’s northern border, where North Korean artillery still stands permanently pointed at his capital, Seoul. It was President Moon who allowed North Korean athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year, an early sign on the road that led us to Tuesday’s meeting. President Moon said he had “hardly slept” before the summit last night, the Washington Post reported.
Trump is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. It is an approach that works for almost no part of government. His legislative achievements have been negligible; when he has achieved something it is usually because someone else’s dream has prevailed over a president uninterested in even learning the details. He ended up allowing Paul Ryan to push through his own tax plan and claimed it as a win; he allowed Mitch McConnell to largely select his Supreme Court nominee.
But North Korea is an achievement that is all down to his style. Perhaps that is because, by some bizarre accident of history, Trump and Kim are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth; they are both chancers: Trump’s plan for the negotiation was to “wing it.”
Kim, for his part, is equally fascinated by celebrity; emerging as an unlikely envoy of peace was the American basketball star Dennis Rodman, whose bizarre trips to North Korea starting in 2013, when he bonded with Kim over the latter’s love of basketball, seem to have been an early sign that Kim’s relationship with America and American culture was not as fundamentally hostile as his predecessors’.
On Tuesday, appearing live on CNN from Singapore wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap as well as a t-shirt advertising the cannabis-themed cryptocurrency PotCoin, a sobbing Rodman expressed his joy.
The lesson other countries might take from the whole affair, however, is perhaps not so positive. This meeting would never have happened if not for the increased aggressiveness with which North Korea stepped up its development of nuclear weapons, especially the missiles that could carry those warheads as far as the continental US. Other countries looking to raise their stature with the US may take the lesson that building nuclear weapons is the way to achieve that end.
But despite this, if the agreement holds and can be developed into a framework that leads to peace – which is by no means a sure thing – it will have been a stunning moment that may make life better for the millions of North Koreans living in abject poverty and repression, as well as making the world, perhaps, safer from nuclear attack from this particular rogue state at least.
If it doesn’t, it will have all been a dismal joke, a dumb-show, two egos at meaningless play. At the moment, we just don’t know. Only time will tell.