The Donald, Kim, and the Art of the Deal

Big on spectacle. Low on substance. That was the broad verdict of all but the most partisan of Trumpists to the Singapore summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States.

Naturally, the president saw things differently. Ever desperate to position himself against his predecessor, he tweeted that Barack Obama had declared North Korea to be the world’s greatest security threat.

“There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!” he said.

Similarly, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich to declare - brandishing a letter from Adolf Hitler - that he had achieved “peace in our time”.

Those who think that Trump’s Asian adventure will end well had better look to what happened to Chamberlain as precedent.

Like Chamberlain, Trump gave the shop away andmerely received a vague reassurance of “complete denuclearisation” at an unspecified time. Worse, he sold the reputation of the United States.

By giving acres of positive media coverage to Kim without any major concession, the dealmaker-in-chief now leads a nation reduced in the eyes of the world.

Trump’s summit with Kim was historic because it happened: the spectacle was the substance

Amongst Trump’s many concessions was an abandonment of the “war games” on the South Korean peninsula. This was supposedly done without warning to the US ally - or indeed any other regional allies. Japan’s defence minister has already warned about the pivotal role played by the drills for East Asian security.

The president may not have withdrawn US forces, but he has seriously affected their battle readiness. Allies will be harder to find. Alliances harder to construct.

Victory not only for Pyongyang but Beijing as it builds up its military muscle.

The two page statement to accompany the handshakes and smiles made no mention of pace of delivery for denuclearisation. There were no milestones. There was not even any definition. This was a statement of intent with no guide as tohow it would be implemented.

The West does not even know the extent of North Korea’s nuclear, biological and chemical arsenal. Now we do not know whether the IAEA will have any role in overseeing even any token denuclearisation that North Korea might offer the United States.

This was diplomacy Trump style. It was glitzy, almost like a real estate advert. Indeed, the summit came with a video about “Two leaders. One destiny”. Trump’s summit with Kim was historic because it happened: the spectacle was the substance.

This is a major gamble. North Korea’s economy is currently 113th in the world. It languishes behind its southern neighbour at 11th.

Having gained nuclear capability in November Kim pivoted towards the economy. He had already begun this in 2011 with talk of “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsul” and began to initiate various market reforms, based upon Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the 1980s.

Where he was lucky was that the man who tore up the Iran deal for being one-sided would then strike a bargain less favourable to his country than “the worst deal ever made”.    

No wonder Kim was smiling. This was his debut on the international stage. He emerged from the shadows of a country best known for its secrecy. Months after murdering a number of officials and relatives, this brutal dictator has gotten away with it. For now at least. Probably for some time.

Kim gained a literal thumbs up from the US president

So were Kim to write a biography a good title might be, The Art of the Deal. He could give a copy to his new friend. Whether he was given or he extracted these concessions it does not matter. What matters is that the US has little leverage, except retraction, should North Korea not fulfill its vague end of the bargain.

More likely is that Kim will try not to provoke Trump into retraction but adopt a glacial peace on “complete denuclearisation”.  Trump has committed himself, that’s their gamble. Perhaps the world had better just accept that North Korea is a member of nuclear family now.

With this summit the terms of engagement on human rights and much else has changed. Dictatorships have made deals before, usually when they have good cards in their hands. Diplomacy has always been bout imperfect ends and unsavoury partners. America First diplomacy has fewer scruples. Message received.

Kim gained a literal thumbs up from the US president. A country where human rights are not even a concept - Trump brushed past criticism aside - is now open for business investment.

Whereas the president presented the summit as an endgame, it is barely a beginning.

Donald Trump did not quite declare “peace with honour” but he assured the US that they could sleep easier for his negotiating and dealmaking. That is like a ship’s captain choosing the choppiest waters to sail through, then take credit when the waters are calmer.

He also might not be right.



More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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