It was no Reagan-Gorbachev moment, nor was it some earth-shaking leap towards permanent peace. But, contrary to expectations, the Trump-Kim summit did achieve some net positives…or, at least, potential ones. Many liberal commentators and media personalities are so eager to oppose whatever Donald Trump says or does, that they may be rushing to declare the summit as an essential failure, or worse, as a cave to Kim Jong-un.
Many voices on television and in the opinion pages are howling that Trump gave away the store in his meeting with the North Korean leader in Singapore. The President's agreement to halt war games with South Korea – annual dress rehearsals for an invasion of the North which even Trump says are "very provocative" – is being characterised as some huge concession. Trump, they say, came away empty-handed, while Kim goes home the big winner.
The comments of Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., speaking on MSNBC, are typical: "This was a dream outcome for Kim Jong-un." Really, though? Sure, the war games have been halted, but there is still the matter of 30,000 US troops sitting on the border right next to North Korea. And, punishing sanctions remain in place, crippling the country's economy and blocking its access to the world markets.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says that Trump was too focused on getting some kind of deal that "in his haste" he "elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime's status quo."
North Koreans know well the costs of a war. At the time, the US military estimated that it had killed up to 20 per cent of the North's population in its bombardment campaigns during the 1950-53 war. Here, family members visit the graves of loved ones at the Fatherland Liberation War Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang.
It is true that a direct meeting between itself and the US has been something the North Korean leadership has long requested and which the US has refused. But, if a meeting between the two conflicting parties to discuss ways of overcoming disputes counts as a concession by one side to the other, then the road to peace is going to be even longer than the 65 years it took to get to this point.
For its part, the North agreed (again) to the principle of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. As has been endlessly commented on, that pledge came with no timeline or any details on a verification process. For a major summit between the two heads of state thrown together in a matter of weeks, that's really no surprise. Events of this sort are usually preceded by months of staff meetings to hammer out those kinds of details, but Trump's unconventional and unplanned diplomatic style didn't really make that possible.
It's also worth mentioning that achieving a completely nuclear-free Korea goes beyond just Kim's weapons program. Although the US has not stationed nuclear weapons on Korean soil since 1991 – US Navy submarines loaded with missiles still patrol the waters surrounding the peninsula and missile silos on the US mainland can still strike North Korea with ease. Will there be a verification process negotiated to remove these dangers as well?
In all the verification talk, many are asking how the US will make sure North Korea sticks to its end of any bargain. The flip side of that question could very well be how North Korea can guarantee the US will stand by its promises. The last major US-DPRK agreement on denuclearisation, the 1994 Agreed Framework, fell apart after the US never lifted sanctions (as promised), never provided new light-water reactors (as promised), and never provided formal assurances of North Korean security (again, as promised).
In the good vs evil tale being weaved in the mainstream media right now, in which North Korea is and always has been the villain and the US is unquestionably the noble hero, it is almost as if the past never unfolded. We are told of North Korean human rights abuses and the horrors of its prison camps (which, while exaggerated, are most certainly real).
Unmentioned, though, is the fact that nearly three million Koreans were killed during the 1950-53 war, the majority of them in the North. Unmentioned is the fact that American warplanes dropped more bombs on North Korea than it did on Japan during WWII. Or that it deployed chemical weapons – 32,557 tons of napalm – on North Korea. Or that the US intentionally targeted population centres during its bombardment campaign, levelling the capital city Pyongyang to the ground.
When it comes to the costs of war, North Koreans know that well. Their country had to be rebuilt from scratch after going up against the US war machine. That is why the media spin that the US is caving to a two-bit dictator who craves conflict is nothing but an intentional campaign of disinformation.
This certainly wasn't the typical big-power summit. Trump did not set out with a clear strategy or any intention to make right the past wrongs. Even if there are some positives to be found in the outcome, it's not as if Trump deserves recognition as some master statesman or as a voice for peace. In many ways, this is simply the result of the haphazard wheeling-and-dealing style of diplomacy that he thinks is his area of expertise combined with his egotistical desire to gain recognition as a powerful leader.
There are no guarantees that anything discussed in Singapore will come to fruition. The war cabinet of Bolton, Pompeo, and the rest is still in place and will certainly have an influence over Trump. There is no way these guys are going to be willing accomplices in any weakening of the US' imperial power and reach. The fact that Trump raised the possibility of bringing home all US troops from South Korea eventually, for instance, is going to be a non-starter with the military-industrial establishment.
But, if we are reaching a point where the North is no longer detonating nuclear bombs and shooting missiles over Japan and the US is not threatening devastating military strikes that could set off a major war, then let's take what we can get. If the two sides are talking directly and taking some small steps forward, then the summit was no failure. As the old saying goes, even broken clocks are right twice a day, and at least for now, Trump is telling the right time when it comes to Korea.
(The writer is the Managing Editor, People's World. The views expressed are strictly personal)