Deals, Donald Trump firmly believes, are never win-win. They are zero-sum, with a winner (always Trump), and a loser (usually Europeans). But after re-emerging from his historic meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump presented a deal which, many would argue, puts him firmly in the losing corner. In exchange for Kim committing to ‘complete’ (but note, not verifiable or irreversible) ‘denuclearisation’ on a timeline that’s anything but committing, Trump agreed to stop the ‘war games’, or military exercises, on the Korean Peninsula. The South Koreans were informed after the fact. As I have previously argued, Kim will never fully denuclearise. But both Trump and Kim agree that both parties benefit from deescalation – for North Korea, it means a potential lowering of the sanctions barriers choking its economy. For the Donald, it means a triumph and, potentially, a piece price. But do not mistake the absence of war for peace.
The big winner here is China. The South China Morning Post, a Chinese Pravda, ran a headline reading: ‘The Art of the Deal: Kim rewrites the book of statecraft.’ There is nothing the Chinese want more than a freeze on Western military exercises in exchange for a freeze on the atomic weapons program – maintaining a Korean buffer zone against the US, with a diminished threat of nuclear war on its Eastern border.
Simultaneously, the summit was a limited success. I don’t know what you expected – free and fair elections? A McDonald’s on Kil Il-Sung Square? The last time a McDonald’s opened in a closed communist regime, it harbingered the fall of the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-un is acutely aware of this – isolated dictatorships do not survive the collective Stendhal syndrome exposure to the outside world inflicts. But the bottom line is the a year ago, bomb shelters were coming back into fashion, and now the leaders of the Free World and the Hermit Kingdom have a ‘terrific relationship’.
The Singapore summit is a rousing, if possibly premature, conclusion to an odyssey that showcases the Trumpian school of diplomacy. Its underpinning principle, that great prizes are worth great risks, led Trump to push the North Koreans to the very precipice of armageddon, further than any previous President had dared, to then extend an olive branch when Kim blinked first. It’s a high stakes poker game that a risk-averse West usually refuses to play, to the benefit of fellow geopolitical gambler, Vladimir Putin. Moving forward, can we expect Trump to play the same hand against Iran, and could it work? If so, the President might just earn that Peace Prize. If not… well, don’t invest in Israeli real estate just yet.
For now, let’s appreciate that the world is a safer place than it was before. Trump has gotten closer than any of his predecessors to achieving a genuine peace with North Korea. Closer. But no cigar.