As U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un geared up for a historic face-to-face meeting in Singapore last June, one question loomed large: Would the two return to the bluster that had characterized their relationship in 2017? That year, a steady drumbeat of North Korean nuclear and missile tests had prompted the United States to talk of “bloody nose” military strikes to compel Kim to denuclearize.
The Singapore summit was neither a major success nor an unqualified disaster. The leaders issued a joint statement that committed North Korea to a vaguer pledge—“to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”—than those it had made on the same issue in 2005 and 2007. Photos of Trump and Kim shaking hands in front of U.S. and North Korean flags lent one of the world’s most brutal regimes unwarranted legitimacy. And without giving Seoul advance notice, Trump offered to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea, describing them as “very provocative.”
None of this was optimal. But history suggests that there are no perfect outcomes between the United States and North Korea—only suboptimal and terrible ones. And Trump did accomplish some good things in Singapore. He secured a commitment from Kim to repatriate the remains of U.S. troops killed in the Korean War, and he established the basis for a trusting relationship, itself a prerequisite for any diplomatic process that might lead to denuclearization or lasting peace. Equally significant, the summit did not end with either leader abruptly walking away from the negotiations, which could have precipitated a devastating war.
Of all these pros and cons coming out of the Singapore summit, the surprising affection that has evolved between Trump and Kim has proved to be the biggest game changer. Although the long-term impact of this unusual relationship remains to be seen, it is already reshaping the diplomatic landscape—in ways that put Trump in a distinctly disadvantaged position as he heads into Hanoi.
"WE FELL IN LOVE"
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