You could hear the complaints almost before Trump and Kim had turned back around to face southward. “Meeting the leader of North Korea like this just gives him legitimacy”; “The U.S. President is legitimizing Kim Jong Un”; “Kim gets legitimacy while Trump just gets a photo op,” etc. etc.
This not-uncommon hot take has been rolled out before and after every Trump-Kim meeting. “Legitimacy” in these assertions might mean three things: one is dead wrong, one is slightly true, and the other is true.
The main question is: “legitimacy for what audience?”
Do these critics mean the domestic audience? If so, the idea that a U.S. president will be legitimizing the 70-year rule of the Kim family is manifestly silly.
Sure, DPRK state media will spin this meeting as a victory for Kim, validating his genius and personal abilities.
Kim is a global statesman now. An additional meeting with Trump does not change this fact
But they do that with everything he does. Children grow up singing songs about him as soon as they can speak. The news is dominated by his activities. His citizens study “10 principles” devoted to the centralization of his leadership. His father and grandfather’s visages grace every living room, classroom, and public building.
A U.S.-DPRK summit doesn’t move the needle on this.
If not at home, “on the world stage,” perhaps they mean. This type of legitimation may be partly the case, but is mostly irrelevant, and becomes more so with each meeting. Kim has now met President Trump three times, seeking some kind of transformed relationship.
He has met Moon Jae-in four times, Xi Jinping five times and Vladimir Putin once. He’s also met the leaders of Vietnam and Singapore. Kim is a global statesman now. An additional meeting with Trump does not change this fact.
He is the leader of a real country, and has been for seven years, whether the international community wishes that to be the case or not.
The DPRK has institutions, a distinct culture, a military, a single party, a flag, a national anthem, and a national dish. It’s real. It also has nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, hackers, an extensive prison system, and a number of other things we would like them not to have.
The only way to address some of the multiple issues regarding North Korea is through engaging its leader. And if each additional meeting adds marginal legitimacy to the idea of Kim as a statesman on the world stage, that needs to be balanced with the pursuit of goals that can only be achieved through dealing with Kim directly.
We can (and will probably forever) argue about how to deal with Kim, when to relieve sanctions, or what vision of denuclearization is good enough to call a success.
But meeting without preconditions should be seen as a win for the United States as much as North Korea. With each meeting more is learned, understanding grows, and opportunities for changed interactions increases.
Given that the United States is yet to do undo a single sanction against North Korea, it can hardly be said that these summits have been undermining Washington’s position in a longer game. It should be noted also that dealing with the reality that North has nuclear weapons and is lead by Kim Jong Un is not the same as legitimating the country as a nuclear weapons state.
But meeting Kim – especially with this semi-surprise, pseudo-summit – does legitimize something: his approach to negotiating with the United States.
The only way to address some of the multiple issues regarding North Korea is through engaging its leader
Kim Jong Un is the most important, but not the only important actor in North Korea. There are some institutions and individuals who do not favor talking to the United States. There are groups that seek to maximize control, limit outside contact and the flow of information; who view the outside world with deep suspicion.
There are other groups who prioritize economic growth, want to see an end to sanctions, and recognize that such outcomes are predicated on a deal with the United States.
There is clearly a struggle between these competing visions in Pyongyang, and the collapse of Hanoi harmed those who argue for cooperation with the United States.
The “handshake summit,” or whatever we’re calling it, likely went some way to changing that balance. North Korea had retreated into a kind of a turtle shell during the post-Hanoi period of uncertainty, ceasing communication with the United States and others.
Now Kim Jong Un can go back to Pyongyang and say “the U.S. President reached out to me and came to our country to clarify – maybe even apologize – for what happened in Vietnam. Now I’ll keep exploring dialogue as a way to get rid of sanctions. We’ll negotiate firmly to keep some of our hard-earned nuclear cache, but we will also have to give up quite a bit.”
Not everyone in Pyongyang will be sold on this. Just as out here we have analysts cautioning that the U.S. could make a deal only for the North Koreans to cheat, there are the exact same mirrored arguments being made in Pyongyang about the Americans, who to them are equally untrustworthy.
Finally, for everyone who criticizes the President for emphasizing style over substance with these summits, know that you are advocating protocol over progress.
Yes, under normal circumstances, there should be a working level-led process that leads to a summit where a pre-arranged outcome is confirmed.
But this is not a normal relationship, as Steve Biegun put it at Stanford in January.
For everyone who criticizes the President for emphasizing style over substance… know that you are advocating protocol over progress
If he and his North Korean counterpart can sketch out the contours of a deal at some point, institutions and influencers in both countries will have to be brought around.
But for now, only two men, as the Singapore-summit video put it, can push this forward against so much mutual and internal suspicion.
And yes, this whole process could fall apart, leaving bitter recriminations and blame aplenty. But for now, it’s being barely held together by the personal commitment of Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump to communicate with one another.
We should try to legitimize that.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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