Over the past few days, I've been asked numerous times who was the "winner" of the historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. My reply: You're asking the wrong question. The summit was not a competition between the United States and North Korea to determine a victor — if it were, it would have been doomed from the start. A summit is not something to be scored like a boxing match. There is no clear-cut winner or loser, because international relations do not work in such a simplistic manner. Rather, for all its on-again, off-again drama, political pageantry, odd videos and relatively benign final document, the summit marked a potential shift in the paradigm for U.S.-North Korean relations.
Stratfor's Third-Quarter Forecast asserted that the only way for the U.S.-North Korea negotiations to succeed would be by putting the political before the technical. The Singapore summit did just that, setting a framework that has emphasized threat management and has started a process in which newly empowered lower-level officials can work out the thorny details.
Let's begin by accepting that there clearly remain decades of distrust and misaligned interests between Washington and Pyongyang. There is no way to eliminate that in a few hours in Singapore — if it can ever be entirely overcome. When we assert that the summit may break a long cycle of poor relations and reneged agreements, this is in full recognition of the current challenges and the legacy of the past. The summit, coupled with the current geopolitical climate, did two things that could lead to change. First, it broke through the political constraints that have prevented regular and normal dialogue between the United States and North Korea. And second, it explicitly empowered the subordinates of the two leaders to manage the nuts and bolts with full political backing from the top.
Finding a New Direction
North Korea and the United States continue to have no formal mechanism for communication and dialogue. Even when the United Nations welcomed full membership to both South and North Korea in 1991, the United States refrained from establishing diplomatic relations with the North. The U.S. refusal to extend diplomatic relations to North Korea was seen as a coercive tactic, geared to express displeasure at its domestic and international policies and to demand a change in its weapons development to earn the "reward" of recognition. The only semiregular channels for communication between the United States and North Korea are through the Swiss Embassy in Pyongyang or through the so-called "New York channel" of North Korea's mission to the United Nations. This lack of regular formal communication channels has left both sides relying on innuendo, assumption and unofficial private channels to try to manage misunderstandings and assert their respective interests.
The summit between Trump and Kim hasn't fixed the problem of communications, but it has broken through the political barrier. Direct communication between governments is no longer merely a reward for good behavior; it is a tool to manage relations, just as it is with most other countries in the world (and was with even the "evil empire" Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War). Most of the tactical details for implementing the summit agreements were left out of the document signed by Trump and Kim, but among them are undoubtedly a plan to finally establish the long-delayed liaison offices in the two capitals to facilitate normalized dialogue. Even if the final normalization of relations awaits progress toward denuclearization, the political constraints on direct and open communication with North Korea are clearly breaking down.
The second aspect is perhaps even more significant, if less obvious. In a somewhat unusual move for a diplomatic exchange between the two leaders, the final summit document explicitly stated that practical implementation of the more ethereal agreement would be in the hands of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and "a relevant high-level DPRK official." Framing documents from a first-ever summit are much more likely to codify a process for implementing the next steps, not name the specific people who will engage in the tasks. People come and go, particularly in governments; processes are supposed to be the important and lasting components.
Anyone who has engaged in talks with North Korea knows that the negotiators are rarely, if ever, empowered to make decisions or concessions on their own. North Korea is notorious for interrupting dialogue, recalling its personnel, walking out, and asserting at the last moment that decisions can be made only at the top back in Pyongyang. Delays, false expectations and wasted time are more often than not the result. But if Kim understood the content and was serious in signing the joint agreement (and the North Koreans clearly were part of its framing and wording), then he is empowering an as-of-yet unnamed individual (likely Kim Yong Chol, director of the United Front Department, which oversees relations between the North and the South) to actually negotiate and to make concessions and demands, at least on the tactical level. That move would be a decidedly different approach for North Korea and could potentially accelerate the process as long as the talks stay within Kim Jong Un's strategic vision.
It doesn't hurt that Pompeo was formerly a CIA director and can call out his North Korean counterparts if they try to hide or obfuscate aspects of the nuclear arsenal. Nor does it hurt that Kim Yong Chol, if he is placed in charge, has both a diplomatic and intelligence background, and that he has played an important role in the North's policy on South Korea. Consequently, each negotiator is well-acquainted with the strategic realities of their respective interests and each other's capabilities and vulnerabilities.
Technicians and Compromises
Neither of these aspects — the direct contact and the empowerment of lower-level negotiators — guarantees success. No one has any illusions about the difficulties of overcoming the differences in strategic interests and concerns between North Korea and the United States. But these changes do represent a shift in how engagement takes place, and in some ways, they move the details out of the political spotlight and into the conference rooms. This approach was often the model for nuclear and arms-control discussions between the United States and the Soviet Union: a loose political agreement between the two leaders to pursue certain goals, and the empowerment of bureaucrats and technicians to work out the complicated details knowing that there were clear expectations for success. The model didn't eliminate disagreement or political interference, nor did it ensure success. But it normally at least led to some concrete steps that would have been nearly impossible without the high-level dialogue that came before.
The Kim-Trump summit — rather than being an all-or-nothing, winner-loser paradigm — has shifted the onus to the technicians to fulfill the political agreement, and that move means compromises. Working out the details means that neither side can get all its wants. But instead of beginning with an absolutist position, thus nearly guaranteeing failure, both sides have, at least for the moment, been empowered by their leaders and given the political direction to overcome the impossible challenges. The summit was not the end of the process, and it certainly doesn't guarantee success. It may not even lead to the ultimate denuclearization of North Korea. But it does represent a change in how the two sides will engage, and that should at least allow better management of U.S.-North Korean relations. Given the near-war scenario we were in less than a year ago, that shift in itself should be seen as progress.