Before President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued their joint statement on Tuesday afternoon in Singapore, before the two men met in private at a luxury hotel on the Singaporean island of Sentosa, before they shook hands with all the world watching, this much was true: Kim Jong-un had already won.
President Trump played right into Kim’s hands. He signed his name alongside Kim’s on a document that, by most indications, does little to pressure the North Koreans to truly denuclearize while committing to end U.S. joint military exercises with our ally South Korea. (North Korean sanctions will remain in place for now, Trump said.) He praised Kim’s “great personality.” He said it was a “great honor” to appear alongside Kim.
For Kim, the event was a coming out of sorts, a chance to show himself off to the world. He had a platform unlike any other – and far greater than anything available to him in the closed, impoverished nation he so cruelly presides over. Here was an opportunity to legitimize himself and his nation, to put North Korea on an equal footing with the mighty United States.
By all indications, Kim departed the summit on Tuesday having achieved exactly that. President Trump and the members of his administration validated the North Korean leader in a way like never before. “[Kim] is very talented,” Trump said at his post-summit press conference. “Anybody that takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it and run it tough…You can take 1 out of 10,000 could not do it.” Later, Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “He trusts me, and I trust him.”
And what did the U.S. get in exchange? A vague, four-point joint statement in which North Korea vaguely commits to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” with no way to verify that commitment. Trump got played by a dictator half his age.
Let’s not forget who Kim Jong-un is. Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim is a dictator and a despot. He runs an authoritarian nation. His government – if you can call it that – is one of the most brutal regimes in the world. A 2014 United Nations investigation accused North Korea of committing “unspeakable atrocities” akin to Nazi Germany. Prison camps, torture, starvation, political repression – they’re all features of the North Korean regime.
President Trump knows this. In a speech to the South Korean parliament last year, Trump spoke of the estimated 100,000 North Koreans suffering “in gulags, toiling in forced labor and enduring torture, starvation, rape and murder on a constant basis.” He added, “All responsible nations must join forces to isolate the brutal regime of North Korea – to deny it and any form – any form of it. You cannot support, you cannot supply, you cannot accept.”
As the first meeting between the sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders, the summit was historic. But from the moment Trump and Kim arrived in Singapore, the event had all the trappings of a propaganda display for North Korea. For starters, the U.S. reportedly agreed to not bring up the issue of North Korea’s widespread human rights abuses. Kim and his entourage were greeted by hordes of photographers wherever they went. As an Australian journalist covering the summit put it, Kim himself was treated like a rockstar:
— Sarah Blake (@sarahblakemedia) June 11, 2018
Or, for that matter, as a leading man in a blockbuster, as depicted in the bizarre, cliche-salad of a hype movie produced by the White House for the occasion. You have to watch this video to believe it, one of the strangest products of any White House in history, complete with dramatic Michael Bay-style music and stock footage of a basketball player dunking.
The media’s glare didn’t seem to phase Kim. If anything, it thrilled him. “It is amazing!” he remarked during the opening photo spray on Tuesday. The North Korean leader spent most of his brief time in Singapore beaming, as if he couldn’t have enjoyed himself more.
Nor could the North Koreans have choreographed a better first meeting between Trump and Kim. The two leaders stood side by side, smiling for the cameras, with a wall of U.S. and North Korean flags behind them. NPR’s Elise Hu reported that analysts speaking on South Korean TV described this mise en scène as a surefire propaganda victory for Kim. “NK media will use this image to tell the people that NK is now on equal status,” the analysts said, according to Hu.
The bonhomie between the two men only helped to project that legitimacy onto Kim. Seated side by side, the two leaders spoke like peers. Trump, who had once derided Kim as “little Rocket man,” now said: “We will have a terrific relationship, no doubt.” Kim, who had once dismissed Trump as a “dotard,” now said: “Past practices and prejudices were obstacles on our way forward, but we overcame all of them and are here today.”
The two men met in private and emerged 45 minutes later, with Trump declaring that he has an “excellent relationship” with Kim. The negotiations went on for several hours, culminating with Trump and Kim signing their joint statement, a document with a lot of words but little meaning. “It has zero practical value,” Andrei Lankov, director of NK News and a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, commented. “The U.S. could have extracted serious concessions, but it was not done. N. Korea will be emboldened and the U.S. got nothing.”
Jean H. Lee, the former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press and now a Korea expert at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank, came to a similar conclusion about the summit’s impact on Kim’s standing inside North Korea. “You cannot imagine how proud this is going to make the North Koreans,” she tweeted. “They know their country is small and impoverished. But to have their leader sit down with the U.S. president – that for them is legitimacy and it will earn Kim major points back home.”
The president’s post-summit remarks were uniquely Trumpian. He said he expected North Korea to “very quickly” begin ending its nuclear weapons program without giving details on how or what had changed. He said he didn’t have to verify the substance of his talks with Kim “because I have one of the great memories of all time.” He said he “absolutely” brought up the issue of North Korea’s human rights abuses, said it was discussed “briefly,” then said it was discussed “at length.” He said he told the North Koreans about their great beaches and that they “could have the best hotels in the world over there.” He referred to the Clinton “regime” when talking about the U.S. in the 1990s – a term he notably did not use to describe North Korea. Success, he told the reporters in attendance, was if he and Kim “got along.”
It was hard not to watch the “Singapore Summit” episode of Season Two of The Trump Show – a Dennis Rodman shilling pot cryptocurrency plot twist? – and see two world leaders getting along just fine. It was hard not to watch the summit and think that Kim Jong-un got exactly what he wanted – legitimacy, praise – and gave up nothing. It was hard not to watch the summit and see two world leaders who may be more similar than any of us would like to admit.