It was a classic piece of Trumpian stagecraft. The US president fires off a tweet inviting the North Korean dictator to drop by and "say hello" at the Demilitarised Zone. Anticipation builds. TV networks set up live feeds. Within a few hours, Donald Trump crosses the 38th parallel – a first for a serving US president – and shakes Kim Jong-un's hand for a photograph that immediately goes viral.
If the sequence underlined Trump's mastery of reality television, however, it also highlighted his shortcomings as a strategist. The sole substantive result of the meeting was a pledge to resume bilateral talks, which broke down with the failure of the last summit, in Hanoi in February. That Washington and Pyongyang are on speaking terms is self-evidently better than the alternative, not least given that tensions between the two nuclear states had risen to intolerable levels in Trump's first year in office. But to date, with the exception of the repatriation to the US of the remains of soldiers killed in the Korean war, Trump has failed to secure any significant concession from Kim.
Instead, Trump has been the one to give ground. For decades, the Kim dynasty has craved the international stature that a head-to-head meeting with a US president would confer, but successive US administrations rejected the idea. Not only has Trump agreed, but he has coddled Kim in the deferential style he reserves for despots and strongmen. Little wonder Kim rushed to the border to meet Trump on Sunday: for him, that photograph is an invaluable propaganda tool that buttresses his own image while underlining the value of the nuclear strategy his family has pursued as a means of ensuring its own survival.
Therein lies the nub of the problem. Kim wants relief from international sanctions. The White House wants North Korea to give up its nuclear programme, but US intelligence agencies believe Kim has no intention of doing that. And why would he, given that Trump keeps reminding him of the clout those weapons give him. On Sunday, Trump hinted that the US could relax its demands by offering a phased approach in which some sanctions could be lifted in the course of negotiations – a retreat from the maximalist position that spooked Kim and caused the collapse of the Hanoi summit. Some reports suggest the US is also prepared to accept a freezing of the North's nuclear stockpile at current levels rather than the dismantling of the existing arsenal.
That has the merit of being more realistic, at least. But it would be a far bigger victory for Kim, who would get to retain his nuclear weapons while securing sanctions relief. For Trump, it would provide a purely cosmetic win, allowing him to shape the narrative as he begins his re-election campaign. But as Sunday’s made-for-TV pageantry showed, that’s what seems to interest Trump the most.