Kim Jong-un came out victorious from the summit

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After months of nail-biting anticipation, the United States President Donald Trump held a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un.

The city-state of Singapore, a mercantile nation that has maintained robust ties with both sides throughout the years, hosted the two leaders at the luxurious Capella Hotel in Sentosa island.

Singapore spent close to $15m to cover the North Korean leader’s accommodation, logistics of the meetings, as well as overall security of the two world leaders. International sanctions made it difficult for the North Korean leader to cover his overseas accommodation.

China, a close ally of North Korea, provided transportation logistics by offering an Air China plane, a retrofitted Boeing (747-4J6), for the 3,000-mile trip from Pyongyang to Singapore. 

Kim’s official carrier, the four-decades-old Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-62, dubbed the “Air Force Un”, was deemed unfit for the voyage.

Thousands of journalists had flocked to the Singapore to cover the historic summit.

But despite all these grand preparations and despite all the big expectations, the outcome of the summit proved largely disappointing. The US-North Korea joint declaration was a broadly generic document, which contained no tangible compromise between the two sides.

In the end, what this summit did was have the US president indirectly legitimise a notorious dictator.

Much ado about nothing

Both men were desperate for this meeting, with Trump perhaps even more so. The US president wanted to score his first major foreign policy achievement, with his tenure in office, so far, marked by growing tensions with neighbours and allies as well as a massive collapse in US global influence.

He recently faced a barrage of criticismsover his trade policy, including the imposition of punitive tariffs on US’ top trading partners; proposal for readmission of Russia to the group; the abrupt withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal earlier this year; and reneging on the Paris Agreement on climate change last year.

Trump and Kim sign agreement after historic summit

The North Korean leader, however, provided Trump a chance for diplomatic redemption, no matter how fleeting. Visibly pleased with his highly anticipated summit in Singapore, Trump reassuringly told Kim that they would have “a tremendous relationship.” The less enthused North Korean leader simply replied, “We’re here [gladly], overcoming everything” to make this meeting happen.

In their joint deceleration, Trump and Kim vowed to continue building “a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” More specifically, the US “committed to provide security guarantees” to Pyongyang, while the latter “reaffirmed [its] firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet, there was no mention of Washington’s key demands, namely the Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Disarmament (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure. Trump also provided no clear idea of the kind of “security guarantees” it’s willing to offer to Pyongyang.

The two leaders simply underscored their “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula“. To Trump, perhaps the instantaneous media mileage generated by the event was more important than negotiating a truly consequential deal, which, according to leading experts, may take more than a decade to complete.

Thus, it’s hard to see the outcome of the summit as anything but a series of motherhood statements with little substance.

The two leaders will likely have to conduct reciprocal visits to each other’s capitals over coming years before hatching out a final deal. The White House has indicated the possibility of multiple meetings between Trump and Kim, while diplomats and defence officials painfully hatch out the devil in the details of a final agreement.

A victory for Kim Jong-un

While there was little substance in the summit declaration, Kim came out as the winner of this set of talks. He basked in global stardom and managed to enhance his regime’s legitimacy by engaging in high-stakes diplomacy with the support of all major powers.  Thus the summit undoubtedly helped the Korean regime partially lift the veil of its profound international isolation.

Now, all key players, from China to South Korea, Singapore and the US, have a direct stake in ensuring that the peace negotiations move forward and as smoothly as possible. As a reward for the summit, Trump is expected to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea and contemplate the prospect of drawing down US military presence in the Korean Peninsula.

The announcement has provoked displeasure in Seoul, but it is music to the ear of the North Korean regime, which has managed to secure concessions from the US without necessarily agreeing to a clear denuclearisation plan. The summit was, in many ways, war by other means.  

With Trump constantly heaping praise on the North Korean leader, and dangling the prospect of full normalisation of bilateral ties, the reclusive regime is gradually and stealthily dispensing its “axis of evil” pariah status. There are even discussions of a Nobel peace prize for Trump and the Kim.  

As a result, the regime change agenda is definitively off the table for now. This could, overtime, also weaken international resolve and willingness of many nations, particularly outside the West, to implement international sanctions against North Korea.

Thus, the summit was a big win for Kim, giving him a deep measure of strategic respite. Over the coming months, the North Korean regime will explore its next move in chess-like, technical, and potentially drawn-out negotiations towards a final and enduring agreement.

At stake is not only Kim’s regime survival, but also the welfare of his people, who are desperate for greater economic engagement with the world. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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