Editorial: Trump understands optics better than anyone

No details, no timetable, no verification, no mention of human rights, too many concessions, too little in return.

If you’re keeping score, it’s easy to record a bunch of L’s for President Donald Trump and a run of W’s for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in the nuclear talks the two leaders held in Singapore.

That’s the traditional way of assessing such summits. But there was nothing conventional about the face-to-face meeting between Trump and Kim or the feverish run-up to it. Trump is not practicing anything like traditional diplomacy anywhere. His style has been obnoxious, disconcerting and, at times, disagreeable. But when it comes to North Korea, consider: Decades of orthodox diplomacy led to exactly what American negotiators wanted to prevent — a nuclear-armed North Korea.

So who’s to say getting unorthodox won’t work?

There are concerns whether this process will lead to long-term peace. But we also understand the summit was the first inning of what always was going to be a long and tedious game. Follow-up is everything. Details will be critical. That will require discipline and commitment, not qualities typically associated with Trump. Then again, the sitting leaders of the two nations had never met before this week. To borrow from the president’s patter, we’ll see what happens.

It certainly was strange to hear Trump praise Kim repeatedly as “talented” and a man who “loves his people” — when he has killed family members and has a deplorable record of human rights abuses. It was odd to hear Trump say he trusted Kim, one of three generations of North Korean family known for reneging on promises. And it was jarring to hear Trump talk of the special bond he has with Kim, just days after he blew up relationships with actual longtime allies in the G-7. But that was partly show to demonstrate strength to Kim. Trump understands optics better than anyone.

That’s why he showed Kim a video that placed the North Korean leader at a “what-if” moment, choosing between isolation and prosperity — and included renderings of new beachfront condos and hotels. It’s why Trump agreed to suspend military exercises with South Korea, drills he can always reinstate — he understood Kim needed to bring back to his people some tangible sign of success to keep negotiations on track. That’s the charitable interpretation. The other take is that Trump got rolled by the callow Kim.

It’s too early to know whether these are the intuitive strokes of a master salesman, or the seeds of disaster. Did Trump sign an agreement with Kim so full of holes as to be useless? Or is it so flexible that it can lead to more specific agreements? Will it bring about complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization and an improvement in living conditions for North Korea’s people? Or was Singapore just a photo-op for a man who craves accolades on the world stage? Trump acknowledged he could find out in six months that he was wrong about Kim. We hope he’s not. Because any agreement, in the end, hinges on what Kim wants.

The two nations have tried to walk together before, but those journeys went nowhere. It’s up to Trump to make sure this new path doesn’t hit the same dead end.