June 12, 2018 / 11:53 AM / 6 months ago

Breakingviews - Trump and Kim’s TV diplomacy lacks definition

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands after signing documents during a summit at the Capella Hotel on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC1378289F10

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Donald Trump’s TV diplomacy lacks definition. A meeting between the U.S. president and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday was mostly for the cameras. Getting rid of Kim’s nuclear weapons remains a distant prospect, and their joint statement made no substantive promises. Still, engagement reduces the risk of a ruinous conflict and might even pry open the North’s economy.

The event was not a clear win for Washington, despite Trump’s bluster. He showered the leader of a brutally oppressive regime with warm praise and handed him a sought-after photo-op, something previous presidents refused to do. Kim also looks set to eventually visit the White House. Trump additionally seemed to offer Pyongyang other goodies, including a halt to U.S. military exercises with South Korea. Though he said that sanctions remain in place, the summit and promises of talks will complicate future attempts to persuade China to support tougher measures.

For all that, the U.S. president secured very little. The North Korean leader pledged to work toward the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, a term that carries subtly different meanings for both sides, and according to Trump, also committed to destroying a missile engine test site. Pyongyang has more or less promised this all before, with little consequence.

Yet the showmanship is an improvement on the war of words that broke out between the two leaders last year. Talks are likely to continue and Kim seemed to enjoy the international attention, perhaps providing an incentive to restrain future bad behaviour. Engagement may mitigate some of the North’s worst impulses: its provocations tend to diminish during periods of increased interaction with the outside world, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

What’s more, talks usually lead to some level of commercial cooperation, especially with the South’s $1.4 trillion economy – on shared industrial zones, cross-border infrastructure projects, foreign investment and greater trade. The North’s $40 billion economy could even creak open a little further, benefiting others across the region. There are no good options for dealing with the hermit kingdom but even superficial engagement is better than the alternative. 

Breakingviews

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