For the first time in history, the leaders of the United States and North Korea are in the same city, ahead of their planned summit on Tuesday. There are no guarantees, and it would be entirely in character for both of these countries’ leaders to pull a last-minute surprise move. But the way President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un have departed from all previous diplomatic practice to attend the Singapore summit indicates they have every intention of – at least for appearances’ sake – making this look like a success.
It’s not just Trump and Kim. The normally cagey island government of Singapore is willfully giving itself over to stage the show. The equally suspicious Chinese regime has also invested in the summit, supplying its own VIP aircraft to fly Kim and his entourage from Pyongyang. It is hard to see them being prepared to associate themselves with a high-profile failure – such as the G7 summit in Canada, which Trump just trashed with wild abandon.
Seasoned diplomats have warned that, for a summit of this magnitude to yield any comprehensive arms-control agreement with North Korea, months of careful planning would be needed. Not, as Trump blithely boasted on Saturday, simply trusting “my touch, my feel,” and relying on his immediate impression “within the first minute.” They’re right, of course, but that’s not what this meeting is about.
Any deal to denuclearize North Korea would take many long months of wrangling by nuclear specialists, before the leaders would finally decide whether to sign it. That would normally be the correct order. First get the deal, then do the summit. But Trump isn’t interested in the minutiae and Kim doesn’t intend to denuclearize.
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They are both after very different things here. Trump will get a grand show – a summit like none of his predecessors had, with the “Rocket Man” from the hermit kingdom. On Saturday, even he acknowledged that “it will take a period of time, it will be a process.” But Trump isn’t interested in processes. To him, this is no different from cutting the ribbon and opening one of those casinos that bear his name. What matters is the fanfare and bling at the opening party: Let someone else do the work of actually trying to make it succeed the day after and then take care of the bankruptcy sales a few years down the line.
For Kim, it’s a win-win situation. Even if no agreement is achieved at a later stage, by emerging into the light and meeting the U.S. president – a feat neither his father nor grandfather managed to pull off – he has bought years of survival for his regime.
A successful summit with Trump means that when the real negotiations bog down later – as they inevitably will – and even if they end in acrimony, he has total immunity for as long as it seems diplomacy has a chance.
If Kim could draw one lesson from the years it took for the Iran nuclear deal to be reached, it was that even when a U.S. president (at the time Barack Obama) says that “every option is on the table,” as long as talks are ongoing and diplomats are meeting, no one is going to get bombed.
Even the second Netanyahu government of 2009-2013 – in which both the prime minister and his closest-ever political partner, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, constantly threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear installations – understood that the moment they got wind of U.S.-Iran talks, the military option was off the table.
A U.S. president doesn’t invest his credibility in talks when he plans to attack, and vice versa. Then-President George W. Bush didn’t engage with Iraq in 2003; he went ahead and bombed. And Obama never truly intended to use that option.
Trump may be the most unpredictable of presidents, but it seems he has already made his mind up to like the young dictator. He isn’t flying to Singapore now only to send the bombers in later. And the background noise from his hawkish advisers indicates they are not looking for a Korean war, either.
The president may not fully understand the magnitude of the gesture he is making, but his advisers certainly know how the Kims have coveted this level of U.S. presidential recognition for decades. The assessment of experienced Israeli analysts and observers is that his advisers are willing to support the president on this so they “clear the table” of any distractions – before getting onto the real business at hand.
Kim already has nuclear weapons, and quite likely the long-range missiles with which to launch them as far as the continental United States. However, Trump’s advisers believe that a combination of threats and economic inducements can contain a nuclear North Korea. That is bad news for the millions of North Koreans who will continue to starve in Kim’s gulags. But they were never of great concern to any politician outside of the Korean Peninsula. Trump’s team wants to focus on an enemy it sees as much more influential than Pyongyang, one that has yet to achieve nuclear capabilities.
Iran is not North Korea. Tehran is in direct conflict with the U.S.’ main allies in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iran is also involved in other war zones, including Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Iran, the Trump administration believes, can still be stopped.
The high-handed way in which the administration swatted away European attempts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive is in direct contradiction to Trump’s emollience toward Kim. No diplomatic capital has been invested in Tehran’s direction. Instead, Trump is burning up every shred of political capital he may still have with America’s allies on that front.
As one professional diplomat who played a key role in achieving the Iran deal observed recently, “Everything being done by the people who are now directing the administration’s Iran policy seems to be aimed at denying any possibility of a diplomatic alternative. Backing Iran into a corner means that they are likely to make a mistake, like overstepping in Syria or renewing their weapons program. Which could lead to war. That could well be what [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton want.”
Granting Kim nuclear immunity will certainly stick in Pompeo and Bolton’s craws. But they will have already calculated that there is little choice but to accept it and try to make a good show of things in Singapore. Keep the president happy. But with Kim out of the way and the empty accolades for Trump’s peace-making collected, pushing Iran to the brink of war – and beyond – becomes that much easier.