World News

What Happened in the Trump-Kim Meeting and Why It Matters

Posted June 12, 2018 1:11 p.m. EDT

Even the most informed observer might struggle to know what to make of the summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

Colorful theatrics, such as a four-minute video that Trump showed Kim, gave the event an air of surrealism. Expectations ranged wildly, with Trump promising the deal of the century and many analysts fearing a blowup similar to what happened at last’s week’s Group of 7 meeting in Canada.

And Trump’s habit of making misleading statements, along with his record of defying norms, can make it difficult to parse which of the summit’s outcomes matter and which don’t, which bring Trump and Kim closer to their respective goals and which move them further away.

Here, then, is a simple breakdown of 10 major take-aways from the meeting and why they matter.

— What Happened and Didn’t

1. Almost any talks between the United States and North Korea, while those talks are ongoing, significantly reduce the risk of an accidental or unintended slide into war, which could kill millions. The simple act of talking changes North Korean and American behaviors and perceptions in ways that make conflict far less likely. That’s a big deal.

2. The joint statement signed by Trump and Kim contains polite diplomatic platitudes but is otherwise largely empty. Among adversaries, this sort of statement is a common, low-pressure way to keep talks going. It doesn’t resolve any issues, but it keeps the countries engaged.

3. Later, Trump made a concession with significance that is real but easy to overstate: The United States will suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea. Trump was setting a policy that analysts refer to as “freeze for freeze,” in which the United States freezes the exercises and North Korea freezes its weapons tests. It’s meant to reduce tensions and create space for more meaningful concessions. Though not all analysts support such a policy, it is a mainstream idea and hardly radical.

4. There is one asterisk to the otherwise modest policy implications. South Korean officials expressed surprise at Trump’s promise to suspend joint military exercises, suggesting that Trump may have made the concession on South Korea’s behalf without their consent or advance knowledge. The South Korean leadership will probably swallow their pride and accept it, but Trump’s public breach of the alliance sends the message that South Koreans cannot always count on the United States. It also offers North Korea the tantalizing prospect of widening any divide between Washington and Seoul.

— The Theater That Mattered

5. The United States staged the summit meeting in a way that handed Kim some symbolic but meaningful concessions. At the North Koreans’ request, the two countries and their leaders were presented as equals — elevating Kim from global pariah to a superpower’s peer. Their meeting was given pomp and ceremony at points verging on that of a royal wedding. Because Kim’s legitimacy is among his greatest vulnerabilities at home and abroad, this staging was a big gift to him.

6. It costs the United States little to make those concessions. Still, they can be given away only once, and the United States received relatively little from North Korea in return. Analysts broadly consider this a lost opportunity to extract more meaningful concessions from North Korea, such as partial disarmament or intrusive nuclear inspections.

7. The meeting sends important messages to other adversarial states. Kim appears to have forced Trump to the table by developing nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the United States. But Kim’s human rights record, considered among the world’s worst, did not appear to be an issue. Trump even suggested that North Korea could become a major tourist destination, almost exactly one year after an American tourist, Otto Warmbier, died of what appeared to be torture endured while in North Korean custody.

— The Bigger Picture

8. If the point of the meeting was to bring the world demonstrably closer to resolving the North Korea crisis, then that didn’t happen. North Korea took no steps, even rhetorical, toward disarming. The United States also made no concrete, long-term changes; the freeze on exercises can be easily reversed. The meeting fell far short of Trump’s lofty promises of North Korean denuclearization. But it also averted analysts’ fears that Trump might make an outright withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea or blow up at Kim.

9. Trump’s foreign policy actions elsewhere may limit what he can accomplish with North Korea. By tearing up the Iran nuclear deal despite sustained indication of Iranian compliance, and by reneging on agreements even with long-term allies, the United States has deepened suspicion that it cannot be trusted to make arms-control agreements. So don’t expect talks to produce much of verifiable substance.

10. Still, it’s worth reiterating that first point: Almost any talks, even if they elevate Kim and grant him concessions for little return, significantly reduce the risk of war. The effect applies only as long as talks continue, so is almost certainly temporary. But as Trump said in the joint news conference Tuesday: “If I have to say I’m sitting on a stage with Chairman Kim and that’s going to get us to save 30 million lives, maybe more than that, I’m willing to sit on the stage. I’m willing to travel to Singapore very gladly.”