Trust Trump to snatch comedy from the jaws of victory. After a carefully choreographed summit, the US president threw a press conference, declared he hadn't slept for 25 hours and launched into an exhilarating dialogue about North Korea's potential for real estate. "They have great beaches," he noted, something he'd observed when watching them fire cannons into the ocean. "I said, 'Boy look at that view. Wouldn't that make a great condo?'"
U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
It's a slightly mad thing to think, but as a local journalist said to me: "It takes a mad man to do what Trump has done." This attempt to build a new, permanent relationship with North Korea, based largely on the word of a dictator, is an unorthodox gamble, but it might pay off. It exploits well the needs and vanities of its main players.
It's important to remember that North Korea has only come to the table because it has decided it is ready and willing. Its nuclear programme has reached a point where it feels secure enough to play it as a bargaining chip, and so it was Kim Jong-un – desperate for investment in his isolated kingdom – who invited Mr Trump to meet, not the other way around. Mr Trump's radical move was to accept.
A North Korean missile test.
Normally such events come at the end of a long negotiation process (if at all), so Mr Trump's agreement to meet face-to-face at the outset has proven transformative – in three critical ways.
First, it tempted Mr Kim out into the open. As far as we know, he rarely travels abroad, and yet there he was, waddling about the streets of Singapore, taking selfies with politicians, cheered on by locals.
Yes, he's very strange, with his hair cut as if for surgery. But now he is much better integrated into regional politics, and loving the legitimacy the summit has given him.
Second, we mustn't underestimate the impact the talks could have in Kim's home country. North Koreans are raised to believe that Americans devastated their homeland during the Korean War and would love to try again. So, it's no wonder that news of the meeting appears to have been scant in the hermit kingdom (during Mr Trump's press conference, television viewers were treated to a cartoon about road safety and a musical about miners). But once full details emerge, it will surely have an impact. A red line has been crossed.
Third, the human encounter between Mr Trump and Kim – including a private meeting with only their translators present – means that both men are personally invested in the success of the process they began.
Commentators are asking why Kim should trust the president given that he tore up agreements on Iran and the environment. The simple answer is that Mr Trump didn't write those deals, so feels no ownership of them. Peace for the Korean peninsular, by contrast, was an interest of his long before he sought the presidency, and it smacks of something his effort to build a wall on the Mexico border lacks: the potential for success, even for a legacy.
The challenge is nailing down Kim on specifics. The communique they signed – Mr Trump with his wild signature that looks like a failed join the dots – contains the quid pro quo of Korean denuclearisation in exchange for US security guarantees. Mr Trump's first compromise was to end US-South Korean war games he'd described as a waste of money. What will Kim do and how will it be verified?
Critics of Mr Trump are worried that all he's done is hand a propaganda coup to Kim in exchange for things Pyongyang has promised before but never delivered – all while the regime imprisons and starves its people. Surely, Kim has proven not that dialogue delivers results but that nuclear weapons get attention?
Mr Trump says we should trust him and that change will come because he and Kim want it – and the politics of honour and reciprocity do count for a lot in East Asia. This region is full of strong men who put business growth before democracy, and Mr Trump's proposition – give up your nukes and we won't try to dethrone you – offers a reset of relations that any dictator can comprehend. While European liberals want to talk gender equality and recycling at the G7, the North Koreans are indeed thinking in terms of turning cannons into condos. In Kim, Trump has met someone who understands the art of a lucrative deal.
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