The ink is barely dry on the joint statement signed by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during Tuesday's summit in Singapore, and yet people are already dumping on it. This is no "deal," the critics say. It's just a vague press release rehashing talking points.
But on the whole, the meeting is an auspicious start.
A follow-up press conference announced some concrete steps: The U.S. would halt military exercises in South Korea, Kim apparently agreed not only to the principle of denuclearization, but to some sort of inspection regime, and Trump announced a follow-up meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean counterpart. Still, there's no mention of a peace treaty — North Korea and the U.S. are still technically at war — or a deadline, or many other specifics.
The point of such summits is not to come out with a full treaty neatly packaged and tied with a bow. It is to build rapport between leaders — which matters enormously — and get a sense of each side's red lines, which will form the outlines of a future deal.
Right now, there is so much we don't know. Trump will say anything. Kim is also a complete mystery. Perhaps, being from a different generation and having been exposed to the outside world before joining the family business, Kim has a genuine desire to open up his country, if only because it would make him much richer and enable him to travel a lot more. Or perhaps he is just dangling the possibility of a comprehensive deal in front of an all-too-gullible U.S. president to get short-term relief on aid and trade, with no intention of actually denuclearizing, a game that his father was quite adept at. Your guess is as good as mine. Besides, every single international summit ends with the parties pretending it's been a big success, regardless of the actual contents.
With all those caveats duly noted, it certainly seems like the summit's goals have been accomplished. Trump and Kim do seem to have built real rapport, and the peace process with North Korea seems more alive now than at any point since the 1990s. If Kim's desire to reach a settlement is genuine, and if Trump manages not to screw it up, a good deal could be in sight. I agree those are very big ifs, but every international negotiation of consequence includes very large ifs, and that was true before Trump. In other words, there's reason to be cautiously optimistic. Given what could be realistically accomplished in one day, it's hard not to think that if anybody other than Trump were president, the summit would immediately have been hailed a preliminary success.
And really, credit needs to be given where it's due. It does seem like it was Trump's contempt for conventional thinking, and his dealmaking instincts, that got us here. The official U.S. policy was to refuse these kinds of meetings unless there were major concessions from the North Koreans, as these would grant North Korea "legitimacy." That policy seems to have simply alienated North Korea's leadership. Thinking like a real estate developer, Trump understood that giving Kim a photo-op costs him nothing. Besides, such "legitimacy" matters little for a regime that, domestically, controls all of its media and can therefore manufacture it at will, and internationally has pretty clearly accepted its rogue status. Simple-mindedness can be destructive, but it can also mean you see the forest for the trees. Trump blithely cut to the heart of the issue at hand: Does Kim want normalization badly enough that he's willing to give up his nukes?
It looks like Trump is well on his way to finding out the answer to that question. And whatever the outcome, we should all be grateful for it.