ONE THING IS CLEAR from Tuesday’s meeting between President Trump and North Korean strong man Kim Jong Un — Kim has won big.
The images transmitted around the world of Trump shaking hands with the world’s worst dictator — with intertwined American and North Korean flags behind them — has given Kim the kind of propaganda victory that he or his father and grandfather could have once only dreamed of.
For years North Korea pined for this day. They wanted the respect that came with being seen as equals to the United States. Indeed, as one CNN reporter noted, the North Koreans fought for just the right stagecraft for the summit meeting because “they wanted to make sure both in ceremony and in security . . . that we’re presenting to the world an image that presents them as equals. The N. Koreans were very conscious of that.”
And on Tuesday, Trump gave them what they wanted. The president and his enablers like to say that only he could have made a meeting like this possible — and they’re right. No other US president would be so ignorant of diplomacy and international negotiations to give North Korea such a huge propaganda win without getting something tangible in return from Pyongyang.
To be sure, the United States did get a few scraps thrown its way. The North Koreans released a few Americans held in their jails. They pledged to halt nuclear testing, which came, not coincidentally, a short while after the country’s testing facility collapsed. Kim’s concessions are not permanent and can be easily reversed. But in a sense they don’t need to be undone. By creating an effective nuclear weapons arsenal and making substantial progress in developing ballistic missiles that could potentially strike the United States, North Korea has already inoculated itself from direct military pressure. Confident in the knowledge that it has an effective deterrent against American military pressure, it had everything to gain — and little to lose — in a direct meeting with Trump. That’s especially true when there is no cost being imposed on North Korea.
The fact is, when the pomp and circumstance in Singapore has ended and the reporters and pundits have all flown home, North Korea will still be a brutal, repressive tyranny — a point that Trump mentioned at great length in his State of the Union address in January but apparently didn’t bother to bring up at the summit.
North Korea will still have a significant number of nuclear weapons. The final communique between the two leaders was a toothless, empty document that committed North Korea to nothing and brought the world no closer to reining in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Kim isn’t about to give up his nukes. It appears that a US administration more interested in the pictures of this historic summit rather than substantive breakthroughs will be just fine with that.
Indeed, before sitting down with Kim for a working lunch, Trump asked photographers to get a “beautiful photo” of him that makes him look “nice and handsome and thin and perfect.”
Trump was smiling when he said it, but he wasn’t joking. The president’s motivations for meeting with the North Korean leader aren’t much different from Kim’s motivation for meeting with Trump — some nice pictures that will be sent back home for a propaganda win. But a political victory for Trump does not translate into a banner day for the countrymen whose interests he’s nominally supposed to be upholding.
But let’s not confuse the gauzy pictures coming out of Singapore with success or an indication that North Korea and the United States are on the path to peace. To keep any momentum from this summit going will require hard diplomatic work on both sides. There is little reason to believe that the Trump administration is about to do that; and even less reason to believe that the North Koreans are preparing to make significant concessions to the United States and its allies. They don’t really need to. Trump has invested himself politically in improving ties with North Korea. He’s unlikely to do anything that would set that process back — like demanding tangible concessions from Pyongyang in regard to its nuclear program.
At the end of the day, Singapore was about one thing — and the answer is not two men shaking hands in front of all those flags.
Rather, it was the image of two men shaking hands in front of all those flags.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.