Donald Trump’s political theatrics play into Kim Jong-un’s hands

The US president has gifted the North Korean despot a diplomatic triumph with almost nothing in return. 

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Taking 20 steps into the demilitarised zone north of the border between South Korea and North Korea, 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 despot Kim Jong-un, who appeared – according to CNN – “overjoyed” at the moment.

Of course he did. For Kim, the meeting – as with his two previous meetings with Trump – represents a public relations triumph of the highest order. He has managed to stratospherically elevate his international standing through his bond with Trump, while also consolidating his domestic position. 

For Trump, this is political opportunism of the most naked kind. He gets to frame himself as a dealmaker, even though all previous experience suggests that the Kim regime is simply lying about even the small concessions Trump claims to have won from them. His showmanship around the event – presenting it as a spontaneous meeting – underscore this idea.

“Trump may have taken [20] 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 a 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 Koreans’ 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 over denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula – or has any plans to do so, however much it promises Trump to his face. 

This fact is underscored by the dramatic contrast with Trump’s approach to Iran, tearing up a 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 an American hostage, Otto Warmbier, in spite of the fact Warmbier 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 resembles a win, especially as he advances towards a tough re-election fight in 2020. Kim has all the leverage he needs to offer America symbolic concessions while pocketing all offers in return. 

It’s bad politics, but even worse diplomacy.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.