(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was unquestionably a success -- for Kim.
By credibly threatening the U.S. with nuclear war, he won a one-on-one meeting with the American president -- a longtime strategic goal of his family’s regime. And that’s not all.
Trump tossed in a suspension of military exercises with South Korea, while China suggested revisiting economic sanctions that the White House credits for the summit. Meanwhile, the president showered Kim with praise, calling the dictator who leads one of the planet’s most oppressive and brutal regimes “smart” and “very talented,” declaring the meeting “a great honor” and saying he trusts Kim.
Less clear is what the U.S. got in return. American officials said before the meeting they would insist that Kim agree to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement” of his nuclear weapons arsenal. The phrase appears nowhere in Trump and Kim’s statement.
Also missing: basics such as a timetable for Kim to give up his weapons, verification procedures or even a mutual definition of denuclearization.
‘Gave Up Nothing’
The president described the summit as a starting point, and the U.S. concessions as innocuous. “I gave up nothing,” he told reporters at a news conference, and then read off a list of what he believes were North Korean concessions -- a halt to missile and nuclear tests, the earlier release of three U.S. hostages and a promise to return remains of U.S. soldiers dating to the Korean War.
Still, some Korea watchers said that it was better for the U.S. and North Korea to be talking than threatening each other, even without a host of specific commitments from Kim.
“I would rate the summit a 10 because it achieved a first-ever diplomatic encounter between two long-time adversaries,” said Patrick Cronin, director of the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific security program. “They signed a broad political understanding while leaving the details for expert negotiations to follow.”
Trump’s political supporters back home may well agree. Seventy percent of Americans supported Trump meeting with Kim, according to a poll by Real Clear Politics and the Charles Koch Institute, even though just 31 percent think he’ll succeed at persuading North Korea to give up its weapons.
But so far, Trump hasn’t shown he’ll avoid the same trap he’s accused his predecessors of falling into: giving North Korea too much without getting anything in return. While the president repeatedly described the document he and Kim signed as “comprehensive,” at 426 words it is anything but -- and there is no indication of when or how Kim will follow through on any of his promises.
“I think he will start that process right away,” Trump said.
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, criticized the document as “unsubstantial” and said Trump and Kim instead should have signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
Michael McFaul, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia, said on Twitter after the document was released that the U.S. “gave up a lot for nothing” with the summit and got “much, much less than a binding deal.”
For all of what he achieved at the summit, Kim’s path ahead isn’t all simple. Trump made clear he was keeping U.S. sanctions in place until he saw evidence of a reduced nuclear threat. Kim won only a vague "security guarantee" from Trump and no mention of a treaty to formally end the hostilities between the two nations.
But the summit did have all of the trappings Kim could have desired. He and Trump met on a red carpet in front of a backdrop of equal numbers of U.S. and North Korean flags at the Capella hotel, a luxury resort on Singapore’s Sentosa Island. They greeted each other with a 13-second handshake, then retired for a 38-minute private meeting before being joined by aides.
There were multiple photo ops, including a walk through the hotel’s garden, more hand shakes, pats on the back and finally the signing ceremony, complete with a pen bearing Trump’s signature that Kim did not appear to use.
Before the meeting, Kim was cheered by Singaporeans as he drove from the airport and then during an outing Monday evening.
Through a translator, North Korea’s leader summed up the surreal nature of the meeting, telling the U.S. president that those watching around the world might see it as “a science fiction movie.”
Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and a former official of the U.S. State and Treasury departments who investigated the illicit financing of North Korea, said Trump’s meeting with Kim appeared heavy on pomp and light on substance.
“The handshake is historic but the optics likely hide a significant gap in the substance,’’ he said in an interview as the meeting took place. “It’s important for President Trump not to fall into the North Korean trap as it is –which is three generations of Kims have really persuaded American presidents that they’re ready to denuclearize by just simply making promises and not delivering on those promises.”
Former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan said Trump’s negotiation appears “very different” from past talks between the two countries because it’s the first time a sitting U.S. president has taken a primarily political approach to the issue.
“So far U.S. administrations tended to focus on a narrowly defined military-security deal instead of trying to tackle the root cause of North Korea problem, which is a high level of mutual distrust,” he said on Bloomberg Television. “North Korea is a small and weak country surrounded by big powers, and that has made North Koreans paranoid about their own national security.”
“We needed to alleviate this kind of paranoia of North Korea on their own national security,” he said.
Trump himself admitted that it might not work.
“I think he’s going to do these things,” the president said. “I may be wrong. I may be standing in front of you in six months and say, ‘I was wrong.’ I don’t know if I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.”
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