foreign policy

The Trump-Kim Summit Was a Great Photo Op, and Maybe Nothing More

Trump and Kim take a stroll for the cameras after lunch. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

The 24-hour, by-the-minute news cycle never fares quite so poorly as it does in an event that is significant to the historical record but that produces very little actual news. The summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore Tuesday morning was an excellent example of this shortcoming.

Following the “breaking news” from the summit, one could learn such colorful details as what Trump, Kim, and their aides ate for lunch, and that former NBA star Dennis Rodman — probably Trump and Kim’s only mutual friend — believes he should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in making the event happen.

Between rounds of closed-door talks, Trump offered reporters a steady stream of optimism: The one-on-one meeting with Kim was “very, very good,” the men have an “excellent relationship,” it was an honor to meet him, “we’ll solve the big problem,” the meeting went “better than anybody could imagine.” Kim’s remarks were similarly cheerful and obsequious.

None of these statements give any indication of the substance of the talks. On the other hand, given Trump’s prior signaling that the outcome of the meeting would be based on his personal feelings about Kim upon meeting him, and his threats to walk out if he didn’t sense that the dictator was serious about negotiating denuclearization, we should perhaps take heart that the most significant event in nuclear diplomacy since the end of the Cold War did not disintegrate on the runway because Trump got a bad vibe off his counterpart.

From what we can see, Trump and Kim got along, the North Korean delegation didn’t drop any bombshells to make Trump call off the meeting (again), and National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has openly advocated violent regime change in Pyongyang, didn’t provoke the North Koreans into doing the same (again). They signed a document affirming their intention to keep working toward a better diplomatic relationship, and peace on the Korean Peninsula. That’s really the best that could be expected from a single day of talks.

Trump will spin this meeting as a tremendous success; indeed, he was already doing so before it was halfway through — using the phrase “tremendous success,” verbatim. The president’s sycophants are already comparing the Singapore summit to Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and hyperventilating about Trump ending the Cold War.

Here’s the thing, though: Nixon spent a week in China, on one of the most meticulously planned and choreographed state visits in history. An elegantly ambiguous agreement was made to sidestep the problem of Taiwan, an influential joint communiqué was issued, and tangible progress was made, not just leaders smiling and posing for photographers. Trump’s preparations for Singapore were, by his own admission, less extensive, while the U.S. and North Korean delegations were reportedly still scrambling to hash out a workable post-summit statement on Monday.

Nixon’s trip to China also received extensive press coverage; Trump’s White House has restricted journalists’ access to parts of the summit, perhaps to stymie any “haters and losers” looking to build negative narratives. Notwithstanding the cable news media’s need for an action-packed evening, not a lot actually happened in Singapore — at least not much that the public is allowed to know about yet.

The summit is a historic event, to be sure, but whether or not Trump realizes it, the mere holding of the summit is a much bigger victory for Kim than it is for him. Here we have a North Korean leader (one who has already ordered hundreds of gruesome, politically motivated executions in his six years in power and presides over a gulag in which tens of thousands of prisoners are forced into labor, starved, tortured, raped, and subjected to all manner of other horrors) being greeted as an equal by an American president. This has been a long-standing objective for Kim, as it was for his father and his grandfather before him.

Trump gave Kim a gift, in other words, just by showing up to the meeting in Singapore. The Trump administration had stressed prior to the summit that it would be more than just a photo op, but for Kim, at least, it is first and foremost precisely that: A chance to be depicted not as the tin-pot dictator of a meddlesome rogue state, but as a worthy adversary of the U.S. who might deign to be our partner if we treat him with respect.

The other key lesson from Nixon that Trump’s cheerleaders should bear in mind is that while 1972 set American-Chinese relations on a course toward normalization, despite the momentous nature of that visit, the seeds it planted did not fully bear fruit for another seven years. It was Jimmy Carter, not Nixon, who signed the deal that established formal U.S. diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Diplomatic breakthroughs don’t typically happen as one-day spectacles, and even when they do, they usually entail a commitment to follow up with much harder, less exciting work (i.e., something far more substantive than the document signed on Tuesday). If Trump and Kim got off on the right foot, so much the better for the chances of success going forward. But the most Trump has achieved in Singapore is the start of a process — one that he may or may not be prepared to see through to its conclusion.

It would be folly for Trump, himself a product of the 24-hour news cycle, to confuse optics for substance and think that just because he looked good and felt good in Singapore, this alone constitutes success. If he has made progress toward a peaceful resolution of the Korean crisis, he deserves credit for that, but overstating the extent of this progress risks underestimating the importance of the tasks that lie ahead.

Trump-Kim Summit Was a Good Photo Op, and Maybe Nothing More