“We will be fine!” President Trump wrote before meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday morning. A few hours later, Trump strode across a red carpet to shake the hand and squeeze the arm of Kim, the murderous and nuclear-armed dictator of North Korea. It was the first known meeting between two men holding these jobs.
It was a powerful moment. But was it a consequential one? Trump and Kim are now engaged in what will likely be the biggest deal either of them ever has to make — a back-and-forth game of negotiation and guile. The initial accounting of the summit has called Kim the “cannier negotiator,” having extracted concessions both expected and surprising from the United States while agreeing only to soft promises. But if the mere occurrence of the summit lowers the probability of nuclear war even a little, might it have been worth it?
In Singapore, Trump and Kim sat briefly for the cameras before heading to a closed-door meeting with only their translators. “I feel really great,” Trump said. “We’re going to have a great discussion and, I think, tremendous success. It will be tremendously successful.”
“The past worked as fetters on our limbs,” a somewhat more poetic Kim said in Korean. “And the old prejudices and practices worked as obstacles on our way forward. But we overcame all of them, and we are here today.”
With these gestures and statements, the two countries entered the second stage of a standoff that has morphed from a game of nuclear chicken into a classic negotiation. Earlier this month, after talking with some game theorists and Korean Peninsula experts, I argued that the way Trump successfully navigated Part 1 — “fire and fury” and all the rest — may be a liability in Part 2. Unpredictability can be a blessing in dangerous, high-speed contests, but a curse when making sober foreign policy agreements.
And it’s still unclear just how tremendously successful the summit was. The joint statement signed by Trump and Kim is short (less than 400 words) and anodyne, lacking schedules and specifics. It hews closely to the pre-summit expectations: North Korea will “work towards” denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the U.S. will “commit” to providing security guarantees in exchange. It also provides for further talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a “relevant high-level” North Korean official. Outside the statement, Trump also promised to stop U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea — what he called “war games.”
There is plenty that happened in Singapore that can be seen as a win for Kim: The U.S. decision to abandon the military exercises; the U.S. agreeing that the “Korean Peninsula” should be denuclearized — geographic language that North Korea prefers because it interprets it as applying to U.S. forces in the region, too; the absence of the words “verifiable” and “irreversible” in the statement; the absence of any mention of human rights; and the fact that Trump agreed to even take a meeting with a brutal dictator in the first place. And perhaps Kim had already extracted his quarry before the meeting even began. The photos with the American president, and even just those of the countries’ flags side by side, will likely prove potent talking points in the North.
Indeed, much of the early hot-taking seems to be that “Kim won” — that we got played, that this was just a photo op, and that it was symbolism over substance. If Trump felt this way, he smiled through it. He called it a “tremendous 24 hours.”
And maybe it was, assuming these loose commitments are really the start of a process that leads to a denuclearized North Korea. Not all games are zero-sum, as simple as one party losing and the other gaining. There are games where there is mutual benefit to be enjoyed. And symbolism matters. Perhaps this diligent scorekeeping and hot-take-making ignores what is, one must admit, a fairly big deal. The meeting may well mark the beginning of the end of anxious cycles of nuclear brinkmanship and nuclear testing. And it may decrease the chance, even a little, that we all die in a nuclear holocaust.
So at least we might have that going for us.