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At summit with North Korea's Kim, Trump gets his spectacle (but little else)

To see the summit as some kind of substantive triumph is to overlook the fact that Donald Trump will return to D.C. effectively empty-handed.
Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump (R) at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella...

In the weeks leading up to Donald Trump's talks with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, White House officials made clear that the American president "remained squarely focused on the summit's spectacle." To this extent, Trump has every reason to be pleased with the developments in Singapore: the president preoccupied with optics, theatricality, and "central casting" enjoyed the international spotlight alongside his new dictatorial pal.

But looking past the spectacle, what exactly did Trump and Kim accomplish?

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed a joint statement Tuesday agreeing to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. [...]While the agreement fell short of outlining concrete steps that would lead to Kim giving up his nuclear weapons program -- the stated long-term goal of U.S. negotiators -- it gave Trump and Kim a piece of paper to point to as a sign of progress and a symbol of goodwill.

It was possible that the summit would descend into a fiasco and the two men would agree to literally nothing. What they ended up with is certainly better than that.

But to see this as some kind of substantive triumph is to overlook the fact that their joint statement says very little, and Trump will return to D.C. effectively empty-handed.

The official declaration included four points. From the official statement:

1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

Trump later confirmed that joint U.S./South Korea military exercises would also be put on hold, at least for now.

And if all of this seems underwhelming, it's not your imagination. It was possible the summit could lead to some kind of roadmap toward denuclearization, but it didn't. It was possible Trump and Kim would nail down some steps toward verifiability, but they didn't. It was possible the two leaders' agreement would include inspection provisions, but it didn't.

It was possible North Korea would agree to some kind of detailed accounting of its arsenal, but it didn't. It was possible the two countries could at least agree to define "denuclearization," but they didn't. It was possible they'd establish some kind of timetable for the near future, but they didn't.

What we're left with is a diplomatic product featuring vague assurances and the prospect of future negotiations, but little else. The summit ends with no policy shifts, no commitments, and no meaningful plan for what comes next.

I don't doubt the White House and its allies will try to sell this as a historic victory, but it's a tough sell.

From the perspective of the North Korean dictator, it's easy to imagine Kim returning to Pyongyang satisfied. Before the summit even began, he received what he wanted from Trump -- a bilateral meeting with the ostensible Leader of the Free World, which raises his regime's stature and international legitimacy, in exchange for effectively nothing -- and now that it's over, he has even more, including a special "bond" with the American president.

Yes, Kim continues to make nebulous promises about denuclearizing, but he's offered similar rhetoric before, and without policy commitments to back up the rhetoric, there's no reason to take the hollow assurances seriously.

To be sure, this landscape is preferable to Trump saber-rattling about "fire and fury," and vague progress is far better than inching toward war. But there's no getting around the fact that in Singapore, Trump and Kim accomplished very little of substantive significance.