Trump nailed the stagecraft in Singapore, but where’s the substance?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) gestured after his first handshake with President Trump in Singapore.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) gestured after his first handshake with President Trump in Singapore.

PRESIDENT TRUMP HAS ALTERED the nature of the US relationship with North Korea. That much is clear from his mind-boggling meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore on Monday, after which Trump said of the dictator that he “trusts me, and I trust him.” Trump shocked US allies by declaring he would call off annual US-South Korea military drills, in exchange for a vague promise from Kim to denuclearize someday.

US presidents have made grudging deals with North Korea before, but none of them have ever showered the repressive country’s tyrannical leaders with that sort of fulsome PR. Most of the hot takes on Tuesday characterized the meeting as a huge propaganda and strategic coup for Pyongyang, and that seems about right. ‘‘President Trump has granted a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved,’’ said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

And yet, it might be worth it — if the change in style leads to any change in substance. There’s a credible argument that hostility between the United States and North Korea has hardened into habit, with both sides locked into inherited animosity that only made matters worse. Longtime American policy of withholding “international legitimacy,” as Schumer put it, has had bipartisan support. It also hasn’t changed North Korea’s behavior. Pyongyang’s ritualized anti-American rhetoric hasn’t accomplished much either. So maybe it’s time for both sides to try something else.


At the same time, it’s also disturbingly clear that Trump himself has no idea what that something else should be — just what it should look like on TV. The meeting seemed to have been an exercise in stagecraft. ‘‘It is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred,’’ said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, in a puzzled response to the summit. In just one example of the uncertainty after the meeting, it emerged that Trump had offered Kim “security guarantees” — a phrase that usually connotes military protection, which cannot possibly be what Trump meant.

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That imprecision points to one of the many ways the meeting could result in greater instability. South Korea was also reportedly shocked by Trump’s announcement that he would end American participation in “war games,” and the later reversals and reversals of the reversals from administration officials only compounded unease about Trump’s goals and competence. Critics of Trump’s opening to North Korea fear that Kim is playing to the ego of a gullible US president yearning to look presidenty in order to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.

But the best-case scenario is that Trump may have forced a rethinking of basic goals and strategies on North Korea that have gone unchallenged despite decades of failure. Even if this meeting doesn’t lead to any breakthroughs — and there’s good reason to be skeptical of that — a future US president may be glad that Trump threw away that old rule book and gave him or her a freer hand.