The table is set. The translators are ready. After a day of taking selfies and touring Singapore's trendiest hot spots, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is ready to shake the hand of a sitting American president for the first time.
President Donald Trump is clearly basking in all of the glory that this historical summit has to offer. But those who may be anticipating a grand bargain between Washington and Pyongyang that closes the North Korea nuclear file for good shouldn't put the cart before the horse.
Reports describing difficult pre-summit negotiations at the working level about the contents of a joint communique—even on the most basic question, like what the term "denuclearization" actually means—offer evidence that the result of the Trump-Kim meeting will be modest. And that's OK.
In lowering expectations over the last week from an immediate nuclear disarmament deal to the start of a U.S.-North Korea relationship, Trump seemingly has no grand illusions about what a 45-minute-long meeting with Kim Jong-un can achieve.
At best, we can hope for a joint statement signed by Trump and Kim that spells out in general terms what both men are hoping to accomplish and how they intend to accomplish it, along with perhaps a grand gesture, like a promise to open a U.S. embassy—or a McDonald's—in Pyongyang.
The opening bid from the United States is the full and comprehensive dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons infrastructure, from the warheads stored in the underground depots to the facilities that churn out the enriched uranium and the reprocessed plutonium. It also includes a freeze, rollback, and elimination of Pyongyang's intercontinental ballistic missiles, unimpeded international inspections of North Korea's declared and undeclared nuclear facilities, and clear, concrete actions upfront to test Kim's sincerity.
The objective for the North Koreans is just as clear: an end to Washington's "hostile policy" of diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and military muscle flexing; the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S.; a formal peace treaty ending the Korean War armistice; and a security guarantee from the Trump administration that regime change and military action is off the table.
Squaring those two positions has confounded the efforts of some deeply experienced and knowledgeable diplomats across three presidencies.
Kim Jong-un, like his father, does not yet trust American commitments, particularly after the U.S. promised political and economic benefits to Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi similar to what it is now promising the North Koreans. The Kim dynasty is on constant guard against what it perceives as bad-faith American negotiating and sinister American motives. To believe Kim would agree to relinquish his nuclear arsenal—the greatest deterrent for an international campaign to depose his regime—on words alone, or consent to immediately shipping his program out of the country as National Security Advisor John Bolton suggested, were always ludicrous propositions.
The odds of aeparating Kim and his nuclear stockpile are somewhere between impossible and highly unlikely. If it will ever be possible, it will require a long diplomatic process, steely resolve, patience in the face of adversity, and a willingness to make the difficult trade-offs necessary.
Unless the meeting with Kim goes poorly, President Trump will—and should—declare the event a success during his post-summit press conference. The foreign policy establishment here in Washington may deride it as substance-free theater or ridiculous boasting of little consequence, but they would once again be wrong. A meeting of the minds is the first step of what one would hope is a continuous, uninterrupted channel of communication between two long-time adversaries.
The North Koreans will still have their missiles and nukes, and the Americans will still have their sanctions. But no one should have believed for even a second that the reality would ever be any different.
President Trump may not fly back to Washington with a denuclearization deal in hand, but the summit with Kim could still be classified a success if it breaks the diplomatic ice, results in more meetings between U.S. and North Korean negotiators, and decreases the probability of a horrific and foolish military calamity. At best, we are on the road towards a legitimate diplomatic process. At worst, the Trump administration should prepare to deter a nuclear-armed North Korea for as long—if not longer—as Washington deterred a nuclear-armed Soviet Union.
In the end, anything that moves the ball toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and away from a preventative war is indeed a victory for America, Koreans, and the world.