In some ways, however, the theatrics were the point
It is a dispiriting sign of the times that the fate of the world – at least insofar as it relates to the possibility of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula – lies in the hands of two such fundamentally absurd individuals as US President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un.
In many ways, the two of them are a matched pair. From their unconventional hair-styles to their craving for respect to their penchant for showmanship – to say nothing of their authoritarian inclinations – the two have plenty in common.
Taking into account the significant differences between the US and the DPRK, and given the fact that both leaders have given every indication of being more concerned with image over substance, no one should be surprised by the inconclusive note on which the summit has ended.
Despite the sky-high expectations, fueled by extravagant pledges and promises on both sides, the chances of a ground-breaking agreement were always slim.
In the end, the joint statement did little more than reiterate language found in previous joint statements issued in 1994 and 2005:
“President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” reads the statement.
And while the joint statement has been trumpeted as “North Korea commits to denuclearization” and “US commits to provide security guarantees,” there is nothing new to see here.
The vagueness as to what these commitments might specifically mean and how they will be interpreted by both sides remains.
In short, nothing has changed, and while the summit provided the world with great theatre, it has done precious little in the way of shifting the terms of debate or of resolving the differences between the two sides.
In some ways, however, the theatrics were the point.
Trump and Kim are both leaders who privilege image and appearance over reality and substance, and looking at it from that point of view, the summit was a success in their eyes. They wanted to put on a show, and that they surely succeeded in doing.
That is sufficient for both men to declare victory and go home, and both were quick to declare the summit a resounding success.
Trump was effusive about the summit and what was achieved there: “We had a really fantastic meeting, a lot of progress, really very positive. I think better than anybody could have expected.”
Similarly, Kim averred that: “Many people in the world will think of this as a form of fantasy from a science fiction movie.”
In the words of China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi: “The United States and North Korea have been in a state of antagonism for more than half a century. Today, that the two countries’ highest leaders can sit together and have equal talks, has important and positive meaning, and is creating a new history.”
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Furthermore, the positive body language between Trump and Kim was also notable, and they both went out of their way to be gracious to one another. Trump called it an honour to meet Kim, while Kim expressed his gratitude to Trump for making the summit happen.
Indeed, that the personal chemistry and connection between the two leaders should also perhaps not be discounted when it comes to assessing the summit’s success.
Certainly, in these personality-driven times of ours – and, crucially, when it comes to such apparently capricious and idiosyncratic characters as Trump and Kim – the personal equation between the two of them is of critical importance.
With both leaders coming to a rapprochement, if not entente, it is perhaps not too much to suggest that a strong foundation has been laid for the resolving of the outstanding issued between both sides, and that the summit can therefore be considered a good first step.
But whether the promise of the summit will materialize into a fundamental and substantive policy shift on the part of the US and the DPRK remains to be seen.
In the meantime, however, both Trump and Kim have got what they wanted.