In the end, diplomacy can work – as a process, not an event. There is no Big Bang theory of nuclear diplomacy. If no further progress is made toward peace on the Korean peninsula, all this – the back-and-forth, the Moon-Kim meetings, the Singapore summit itself – is at worst another good start that faded. It is more likely, however, a turning point.
It is easy to announce a morning-after defeat for Trump: to criticize the agreement as vague and lacking in specific commitments regarding denuclearization. But those critics ignore Kim’s moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing, the return of American prisoners, the closing of a ballistic missile test site, and the shutting down of a major nuclear test facility without opening a new one. It is easy to forget that a few months ago North Korea was still testing nuclear devices to spark fears of a dark war. Calling the Singapore summit a failure in light of more detailed agreements and different efforts from the past ignores the reality that all of those past agreements failed.
Only a few months ago State Department North Korean expert Joseph Yun’s retirement triggered a round of dire claims of a “void at [the] head of Trump’s Korea diplomacy.” Similar predictions were made over the lack of an American ambassador in Seoul. The State Department was decimated. (“The Trump administration has lost the capacity to negotiate with other countries,” wrote one journalist.) The Council on Foreign Relations assessed the chances of war on the peninsula at 50 percent.
Success on the Korean peninsula, as in the Cold War, will be measured by the continued sense that war is increasingly unlikely. Success in Singapore is the commitment to meet again, and again after that; the more modest 2015 Iranian Accord (which didn’t even involve actual nuclear weapons) took 20 months to negotiate. Cold War treaties required years of effort, crossing administrations in their breadth. To expect more than a commitment to the next steps (did anyone think Kim would box up his nukes post-summit and mail them off?) is ahistorical. Did none of those complaining ever go on a first date?
Singapore also signals it is time to abandon now-disproven tropes. Trump and Kim are not madmen and their at times bellicose rhetoric is just that. Both men will need to balance conciliatory steps forward with rougher gestures directed at domestic hardline audiences. So there will be tweets and setbacks. But the idea this is a North Korean ruse is worn thin. “Small countries confronting big countries seldom bluff,” one history of the Cuban Missile Crisis explained. “They can’t afford to.”
The pieces for progress are in place if they can be manipulated well, including a North Korea with a young, Western-educated, multi-lingual leader perhaps envisioning himself as his nation’s Deng Xiaoping, the man who will bring the future to his isolated nation while preserving its sovereignty. “We have… decided to leave the past behind,” Kim said as he and Trump signed their joint statement. There is momentum in Pyongyang, a restless and growing consumerist middle class living in a parallel semi-market economy fueled by dollars, Chinese currency, and increasing access to foreign media. Couple that with an American president willing to break the established “rules” for (not) working with North Korea. A careful look shows the glass is more than half full.