As predicted, today turned out to be a day that will go down in history. It’s the worst day ever for Robert DeNiro. And Stephen Colbert. And Joy Behar.
But even more importantly, it is a “yuuuuuuge” turning point for relations between North Korea and the US (and the world.) We saw the culmination of a stunning series of events that started with nuclear threats and twitter insults between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un and President Trump, events that brought warnings of a nuclear apocalypse...but which somehow led to a friendly meeting between the two, followed by a surprise signing of a document crafted in secret but changed at the last minute to add more concessions from Kim, such as agreeing to destroy a missile engine testing site. Trump had previously said that it might take several meetings before they reached the stage of signing anything. I guess unlike previous Presidents, he thinks it’s not a good negotiating strategy to let the other side know what you plan to do before you do it.
The know-it-alls who mercilessly mocked Trump’s tweets about “Rocket Man” and “my nuclear button is bigger than yours” learned, via a post-summit interview with Sean Hannity, that the strong rhetoric was an important part of Trump’s strategy to get Kim to the table and it worked. Trump even admitted that he felt foolish and a little embarrassed about tweeting it at the time. Don’t worry, Mr. President: there are other people who should definitely feel more foolish and embarrassed than you.
Trump made it clear that the document is not a treaty or agreement, just an early-stage declaration of intentions. He’s taking the Reagan approach of “trust, but verify” (in one amusing moment during his post-signing press conference, he said if Kim fails to live up to his promises, he’ll come back in six months and admit he was wrong – well, actually, he’ll probably make an excuse and not admit he was wrong. That may be the most honest thing anyone in politics has said in years.)
The document calls for North Korea to completely dismantle its nuclear program, which Trump said will take a long time due to scientific constraints, but once it's started, can't be reversed. The US will halt its joint war games with South Korea that Kim saw as a provocation (Trump noted that will save the US a lot of money anyway) and offer some security guarantees, but the nuclear disarmament must come first and be verified before any concessions, such as lifting sanctions, are made. So there’s still a long way to go, but at least this is a hopeful start that we never could have imagined just one year ago.
Trump also got Kim to agree to return the remains of MIAs and POWs from the Korean War to their families in the US, many of whom had urged Trump to help finally bring them some closure after many years. When asked why he thought Kim had seemingly changed his attitude and this wasn’t yet another sucker deal, Trump credited the attention focused North Korea over the treatment and death of American Otto Warmbier, which shocked and saddened the world. He kindly assured Warmbier’s parents that their son had not died in vain.
As to why Trump has seemingly accomplished what previous Administrations could not, one could argue that he had a tough, competent team; he understands that you negotiate from a position of strength; he didn’t delegate his authority to the U.N.; and he’s the master of the “art of the deal.” But don’t discount the importance of bringing a businessman’s perspective to a process that’s heretofore been dominated by professional diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians.
Trump revealed that he’d had a computer-animated video created to show Kim on his iPad, illustrating the kind of booming economic development North Korea could enjoy if it turned away from war and opened its society. He even pointed out the excellent “location, location, location” of having real estate between China and South Korea, and noted that the beaches where Kim put cannons could be the site of luxury hotels. He said this seemed to have an impact on Kim.
In fact, after meeting with Trump, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kim not only agreed to give up his nukes, but also to buy a timeshare condo in a Trump resort.