In the world of diplomacy, talking is always better than not talking.
And talk is exactly what came out of the whirlwind Singapore summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
Both leaders walked away with the photo-op they came for, but little else of substance.
This was a first date, complete with some awkward flirtation.
“Great personality and very smart,” said Trump of Kim, after their first encounter.
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But the two men are still a long ways off from any sort of nuclear nuptials.
On matters of substance, like stripping North Korea of its ability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, there isn’t anything to show. The two leaders simply signed off on a vague promise that North Korea will commit “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
That kind of language implies the U.S. will have to scale-back its protections of South Korea if it wants the North to give up its weapons, but there are no specifics for either side at this point.
Yet if nothing progresses beyond that, Trump and Kim will have each walked away with a huge personal victory.
Kim is the one who orchestrated the summit, and invited Trump to sit down and talk.
He did so only after building himself the ultimate bargaining chip, in the form of a nuclear arsenal.
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After doing all that, the North Korean dictator could not have asked for a better welcome to the exclusive club of nuclear-armed nations than a photo op with an American president.
In that moment, the supreme leader was bestowed a new level of legitimacy. He was treated as equal to the United States, despite heading a rogue regime that consistently remains a bad actor on the world stage.
That’s powerful propaganda for the domestic audience he controls with an iron grip.
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But much of the same can be said for Donald Trump.
He may not be a dictator of an isolated regime, but Trump is inexperienced both as a head of state and as a diplomat. He runs from the gut, trusts his instinct and insisted he didn’t need to prepare for the meeting.
By walking away with that vague promise from North Korea, Trump too was granted a new level of legitimacy. He can claim to have nailed down a deal that no one else could make, in a way that only he could.
That is spectacularly on-brand for the American president.
Of course, none of it matters if the two sides stop talking. Reaching an agreement of substance is a process that will take years if the two leaders decide to follow through.
The complexities are mind-boggling. This isn’t the kind of stuff that gets hammered out in a first meeting.
For example, “denuclearization” sounds simple enough, until you remember that someone has to verify that North Korea has actually given up its weapons.
But first, the two sides will need to agree on who might carry out those inspections inside North Korea.
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Before those inspectors can start inspecting, they will need to know what kind of nuclear weapons North Korea possesses and how many of them there are. They have to know what they’re looking for.
Then they’ll need to find out where those weapons are built, and where they’re stored.
They may even have to figure out if North Korea might be trying to hide weapons somewhere else, and try to negotiate access to those locations, too.
Yet from where we stand right now, Kim Jong Un hasn’t even disclosed how many nukes he has. There’s no sign he’s anywhere close to doing that. It’s nice to promise eventual denuclearization, but actually doing it is a whole other matter.
Or what about scaling back the number of U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan just to make North Korea happy?
It’s hard to see America being ready and really willing to scale back its military presence on China’s doorstep, at a time when China is building military bases on man-made islands in the South China Sea.
There’s so much work to do and so much to negotiate, that even President Trump admitted this newfound relationship could easily fall apart.
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But the point is, the two sides are now talking instead of hurling insults and threats at each other.
And if they can keep talking, they just might get somewhere.
Jackson Proskow is Washington Bureau Chief for Global National.
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