The Singapore summit in June last year was, above all, an exercise in political symbolism. “Optics” and “atmosphere building” featured heavily: a lot of declarations, little actual deals.
The Hanoi summit in February was more about substance than “optics” – and this might have been why it ended in failure.
Sunday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump (it’s not clear whether it can technically be described as “summit”), however, made up for the symbolism deficiency created by those aborted negotiations in the Vietnamese capital.
The Panmunjom talks were almost exclusively about optics, and produced little, if anything, of substance.
Nonetheless, one should not be excessively critical about this piece of spectacular political theater. It was timely, and, in the long run, likely to be useful even though, in many regards, it was difficult to listen to the official pronouncements of the major players with a straight face.
Indeed, the public is now supposed to believe that at some time on Saturday morning, Donald Trump had what he immediately recognized as a brilliant idea: he understood that since he was heading to Seoul, his old buddy and negotiating partner, Kim Jong Un, happened to be nearby, so it would make sense to meet him at very short notice.
Trump’s claims about the origin of the third summit are utterly implausible
Imagine somebody who, in a remote neighborhood, drops by a coffee shop and sees a former neighbor, with whom the person is now engaged in complicated litigation.
Small talk follows: just personal relations and general politeness, nothing to do with litigation. Needless to say, such a short and chance encounter will likely not see any painful issues of real estate or property rights be discussed.
Of course, Trump’s claims about the origin of the third summit are utterly implausible, and since at least last weekend, a number of Korea watchers, analysts, and experts expected something like this to happen.
Indeed, there were numerous signs that it would. And this author would say that by Friday, it was more or less the majority opinion in the expert community that Kim Jong Un and Trump were likely to have a weekend meeting, however short and symbolic.
So, we have to answer one simple question: why does symbolism take such precedence over substance? Why were we treated to such a piece of political theatrics instead of normal, good old-style summitry? These are the major questions one should consider when talking about the Panmunjom meeting.
To start with, we must recognize that all three participants in this weekend’s meeting badly needed a symbolic breakthrough of the sort we just saw at the DMZ.
Let’s begin with Donald Trump, whose love for photo-ops has never been a secret. The U.S. President needed such a meeting, above all, to demonstrate his diplomatic skills and his ability to handle a difficult situation in a rather unconventional, but efficient manner to his domestic audience.
This is especially important now, when tensions with Iran are building and many suspect that Trump and his national security team are pushing the U.S. towards conflict.
Donald Trump was keen to remind his audience that under his watch the North Koreans have been remarkably quiet – no nuclear tests, no missile launches.
All three participants in this weekend’s meeting badly needed a symbolic breakthrough of the sort we just saw at the DMZ.
But silence is not enough. The semi-summit also helped Trump to create an impression that the situation in North Korea is not locked in a stalemate, but advancing in a desirable direction.
It’s also possible that apart from his selfish domestic agenda, Donald Trump also cares about greater things as well. After all, his policy has indeed helped to calm the situation, and it’s likely that he truly wants to negotiate a lasting compromise agreement with North Korea.
Moon Jae-in needs “optics” even more than his two counterparts. He is relatively popular but his approval ratings are steadily sliding, in large part due to growing discontent about his administration’s economic policy.
Conversely, his policy towards North Korea is popular with the majority (by no means all, of course) of South Koreans. So, it makes sense for Moon Jae-in to score what can be presented as another impressive and spectacular diplomatic success.
On the other hand, Moon Jae-in is not just driven by petty political considerations. He has reasons to believe that if Trump, and to a lesser extent, Kim Jong Un, are not managed sufficiently well, the situation in and around the Korean peninsula could easily slide back to what it was in 2017 when an outbreak of war appeared likely.
Therefore, managing the situation is vital. Since South Korea has little real leverage (no matter what officials in Seoul say), a symbolism-charged event was a very good idea.
Finally, Kim Jong Un had his own reasons to engage in a bit of summitry magic. There are good indicators that the collapse of the Hanoi talks delivered a noticeable blow to Kim Jong Un’s standing within his own country.
Now, it seems North Korean hardliners are mounting a counteroffensive, accusing Kim Jong Un of being too soft on the American imperialists and generally unprofessional.
From what I know, some of these accusations are repeated quite frequently in the country. Kim is almost definitely aware of the growing signs of political discontent and he badly needed something which can be plausibly presented as a diplomatic victory. On June 30, that’s exactly what he got.
Also, like his other partners, Kim Jong Un might have less selfish ideas, and cares not only about his own power but also about the success of his country.
There are good reasons to believe that the North Korean leader would like to forge a lasting compromise as long as Donald Trump remains in the White House.
He understands that a more conventional president would never accept such a compromise – largely because any conceivable compromise acceptable for Pyongyang will include some kind of tacit acceptance of it as a de facto nuclear power, an absolute red line for the majority of the American presidents, and the public in general.
But if all sides needed some breakthrough, why did they limit themselves to pure symbolism? Why did they invent these transparent fantasies about a meeting improvised out of the blue with the use of social media and a quick phone call? Why not deliver some substance?
There are good reasons to believe that the North Korean leader would like to forge a lasting compromise
The answer to this question is quite simple. Substance was not delivered because delivering anything is difficult, or perhaps even impossible, right now.
By substance, one can only mean some kind of compromise, which would imply a significant reduction and partial dismantlement of North Korean nuclear facilities in exchange for partial relaxation of economic sanctions.
Something like this was proposed by the North Koreans in Hanoi, but back then, they were willing to give too little while asking for too much.
However, forging such a compromise will require a great deal of highly technical negotiations between specialized teams. Such issues cannot possibly be resolved within a few weeks – typically, preparing such an agreement would take many months of hard work from professional teams from both sides.
However, for the above-mentioned reasons, all participants in Sunday’s meeting needed some kind of sellable, impressive, spectacular success as soon as possible.
This is what they got by arranging a meeting in a way that would allow them to wave off all possible questions about a substantial, meaningful, and lasting agreement.
It’s also remarkable that this time the participants seldom mentioned denuclearization – officially still the holy grail of U.S. policy towards North Korea and Washingtons’s only acceptable solution of the North Korean question.
Denuclearization was mentioned, of course, but not frequently. And when Donald Trump was talking about his diplomatic and political success, he did not claim that he was pushing North Korea towards denuclearization.
Instead, he just emphasized that under his watch, North Korea is less engaged in nuclear tests and missile launches.
There is also a good chance that a real compromise will be prepared in the near future
This might be a sign that Donald Trump has finally realized something which has been obvious to the majority of North Korean watchers for years: the North Koreans are not going to surrender their nuclear weapons no matter what.
With this in mind, it’s quite possible that Donald Trump has already begun to quietly move the goalposts – with the full, if tacit, support of President Moon and Chairman Kim.
So, what can we say about the Panmunjom U.S.-North Korea semi-summit? Well, above all, it was good news.
Even if it does not produce anything of substance, it still helped to improve the situation in the region and reduce the chances that, in the near future, the Korean peninsula will find itself in a dangerous situation.
It was a rather dishonest setup, and some officials made patently dishonest claims. Nonetheless, it was necessary, and was indeed a minor success.
Of course, one has to admit that there is also a good chance that a real compromise will be prepared in the near future. If this is indeed the case, we have even more grounds for optimism.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
In the two years which have passed since Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States, North Korea watchers have grown used to symbolism and political theater.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.