The Singapore summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un will be the most riveting reality show of the Trump presidency.
It’s not just the optics of two leaders who are consummate showmen with daunting hairdos trying to upstage each other in front of a zillion cameras. And it’s not just the unpredictability - as the secretive but shrewd North Korean faces a U.S. leader who hates briefings and loves to deviate from his script.
This is about real stuff, about whether a North Korea that is a full-blown nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland is really ready to shed its nuclear weapons. And about whether Trump has a realistic strategy or, in the glamour of the moment, will be played by Kim.
As we approach the Tuesday moment, here’s what to watch for to help you assess the summit state of play.
CHECK OUT THE OPTICS, BECAUSE THEY MATTER
Too much Trump bonhomie, hugs, or public flattery will only bolster Kim’s astonishingly swift rise from “little rocket man” to a global leader wooed by Beijing, Moscow, and Seoul, and now sitting across from the U.S. president
So watch to see if the summit produces more than another Trump bromance - a “get-to-know-you situation,” as Trump put it. Will a detailed framework and timetable for denuclearization emerge?
DOES THE SUMMIT DELIVER A “BIG BANG” OR THE BEGINNING OF A LONG NEGOTIATING PROCESS?
Will Trump accept the latter? When the summit talk first started, the White House insisted its goal was the complete, verifiable, and irreversible destruction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, or CVID. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, cited the Libyan model, in which Muammar Gaddafi’s minimal program with no nukes was dismantled in three months.
“CVID is a pipe dream,” says Joel Wit, a former U.S. diplomat involved in past negotiations with North Korea, who is now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. “The issue for us is, how far can we get in that direction? A freeze (of nuclear and missile testing), rolling back, and dismantling is not something that happens overnight.”
Indeed, CVID is a distant, probably unachievable goal given Pyongyang’s cache of over 60 nukes and its enormous program.
The president, on a steep learning curve, has started backpedaling on a big bang and talking about process, and Bolton has been curbed (for now). But a long process would make the negotiations look more like those of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, which blocked Pyongyang’s nuclear progress for years, but ultimately failed.
“There’s nothing Trump can say at the summit that will convince Kim (to completely end his program) but he could set the tone for serious talks while testing Kim along the way,”says Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and director of a U.S.-North Korea dialogue that included several visits to North Korea, Will Trump have the patience for the long haul?
WILL THE SUMMIT PRODUCE PEACE IN OUR TIME (BETWEEN NORTH AND SOUTH KOREA)?
There are rumors that there will be some sort of announcement of an end to the war between North and South Korea, attended by South Korean President Moon Jai-in (the 1953 war ended with a U.N. armistice).
This would provide high drama, but would make it much harder for Trump to re-exert any military pressure on North Korea if arms talks went nowhere. This is why previous U.S. presidents have opposed pursuit of a formal North-South peace accord before the nuclear issues are addressed.
WHO’S THE BETTER DEAL-MAKER, TRUMP OR KIM?
“Kim has proven himself to be a really savvy negotiator,” says DiMaggio. Very true. The summit will provide Kim with the recognition he and his father sought in vain from previous U.S. presidents, and Trump has delivered it before any progress on divesting North Korean nukes.
Moreover, Kim has used the prospect of talks to undercut the sanctions regime that helped get him to the table. Beijing is already informally loosening sanctions while Russia has called for their lifting and invited Kim to Moscow. Meantime, South Korea’s President Moon - the prime mover behind the summit - is moving ahead with peace efforts, with or without Trump.
In other words, Kim is wooing the regional leaders whom Trump will need to exert future leverage on Pyongyang. “This administration is focused on bilateral talks but there is no evidence it has the skills and capacity to do multilateral diplomacy,” says DiMaggio. Indeed, Trump canceled the Singapore summit without notifying South Korea, and has treated Seoul cavalierly on trade.
WILL TRUMP GIVE AWAY THE STORE?
In the countdown to the summit, many Korea experts wonder whether Trump might fall prey to Kim’s demands that he reduce troops on the Korean peninsula before denuclearization, worrying Asian allies that America no longer has their back. “He could get caught up in a moment of personal glory where he could give up the whole store,” muses DiMaggio. “He’s got to be ready to resist his instincts to make a bad deal.”
The reality of Trump’s deal-making talents will be on full display in Singapore.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.