The Singapore summit was a kind of claustrophobic simulacrum of an international summit. Shuffling between rooms and crowding around little garden paths and balconies, neither Donald Trump nor Kim Jong-un appeared to really know what they were doing there (for real or not—at one point, both delegations genuinely looked like they were locked out of the building).
But then: Surprise! Trump declared: “We are going right now for a signing.” The morning’s languid pace and multi-course lunch suddenly gave way to a scrum in front of a desk with two sets of documents. The idea, apparently, was to keep the contents of the agreement secret until later in the day, but Trump leaked them himself by performing his now famous signature-display move for the cameras. A few moments later, they went back to their starting point and parted ways.
There will be weeks of analysis about how these two men interacted, their body language, and what it reveals about their intentions and the real outlook for security on the Korean peninsula. But the thing that kept me up all night was the press conference afterward (which, at over an hour and fifteen minutes, seemed to run almost as long as the summit itself). Broadcast around 3 a.m. in the Midwest, most Americans will never see the entire recording of the press conference. It’s probably for the best.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
Journalists eagerly awaiting details about what Trump and Kim had signed just a couple of hours earlier were first treated to a nearly five-minute long propaganda video, with a Don LaFontaine-style voiceover in both Korean and English. No introduction was provided, and it was initially unclear if it was a US or a Korean production, or who the intended audience was. Like the deliberate secrecy around the mystery agreements, Trump’s movie (supposedly produced by something called Destiny Pictures) seemed intended to surprise everyone again.
The video might appeal to an audience raised on KCTV, the North Korean broadcaster. But it explicitly calls on Kim Jong-un to embrace the right path to secure peace and avoid doom, mixing shots of Times Square and Amazon drones with scenes of a smiling Kim at this year’s Winter Olympics. It also doubles as a kind of hyper-capitalist real estate pitch, complete with beachfront property and speedboats and babies—a glorious alternate-reality utopia that will only be available to North Koreans if the Chairman climbs aboard Trump’s train to the Best. Summit. Ever. (Though after he revealed to the gathered media that he plans to suspend war-games with South Korea, it’s become even less obvious what Trump’s final destination is ).
The film wraps up with a series of quotes from both leaders. “We no longer will have to tighten our belts,” says Kim, looking gleefully at his savior from the United States. Trump’s line is at war with itself: “I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful.”
The voiceover ends it: “The future remains to be written.”
Trump finally made it up on stage for the long overdue press conference with a clearly uncomfortable press corps, who struggled to ask questions not focused on the many uncertain facts of the day.
Trump had few specifics to offer the press in Singapore, but it seems he brought up Siegfried Hecker’s 15-year estimate for denuclearization himself. “Whoever wrote that is wrong… Very complex subject.” Yes it is. (Hecker’s take on denuclearization in North Korea can be seen in this Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation report here.)
Trump did eventually reveal that he had also played the video for Kim and his group, a rather disturbing revelation that was lost in the nuclear pile of other concerns.
“They were fascinated by it,” Trump said.
That may or may not be true of the North Koreans, but others were definitely not impressed. Upon watching it, a source speaking on condition of anonymity said:
“The former [US] State Department employee in me wants to just give it all up and become a bartender on some island.”