13 JUN 2018: Put aside, for argument's sake, the question of what was actually accomplished, when Donald Trump met Kim Jong Un - at least in the way that we usually use the word. Put aside your politics, - if only for a moment and ask yourself – what the hell was this about? And if you’re wondering what it has to do with travel – give yourself a shake. It has everything to do with everything.  

The summit that brought the two together for gripping, grinning and signing on Tuesday is being vigorously debated across the planet for what it did, what it didn't do and who emerged on top.

Strip away the spectacle and look for the substance, so say the pundits. But what if that's not the whole point? What if, on a sunny tropical morning in Singapore, the spectacle itself was the most substantial thing of all?

On paper Trump got less than nothing from Kim Jong Un – it’s a vague statement with no timelines and no detailed commitments from North Korea.

But as Trump made clear, none of that really matters to him.

Instead, he is betting everything on the “terrific relationship” and “very special bond” that he said he developed with the 34-year-old dictator, and Trump’s is certain that they now view the future elimination of North Korea’s arsenal of atomic weapons the same way.

He swatted away suggestions that the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” means something different in Pyongyang than it does in Washington.

“People thought this could never take place. It is now taking place,” Trump said after the meeting. And in that he is utterly correct. A decade ago, a year ago and certainly six months ago, the notion of these two sitting down together - “Little Rocket Man” and the “deranged US dotard,” as they derisively called each other - seemed unfathomable.

But it did happen. And with uncanny timing. After arriving late to a meeting with his closest allies, Trump left the G7 summit early and flew halfway around the world to meet the leader of one of the world’s most repressive nations on the theory that if he could win over the country’s leader with a vision of future wealth, North Korea would determine that it no longer needs its nuclear weapons. Or its missiles, its stockpiles of VX and other nerve agents or its biological weapons.

That theory is based on nothing but Trump’s assumption that his personality, and deal-making skills - in which he almost alone has total confidence - will make all the difference. Essentially however, nothing has changed except that Trump denigrated his country’s closest and long standing allies, to toady up to a dictator whose regime had killed hundreds of thousands of people and who has tortured and enslaved as many as 130,000 political prisoners in gulags.

No specific preconditions for the meeting were proposed and no commitment on human rights secured, nor was there any firm promise to denuclearize. Instead Trump blindsided allies by agreeing to the dictator’s demands to end annual joint military exercises with South Korea.

Trump suggested that he was ending the “very provocative” war games as an incentive for North Korea to denuclearize, granting the North one of its most avidly sought objectives even before the country has begun dismantling its nuclear weapons and with no time commitment from them.

Just imagine what Republicans would have said or done if Barrack Obama or Hillary Clinton had done what Donald Trump just did.

Incredibly Republicans remained silent and made no protest, as Trump chillingly, lavished unrestrained praise on Kim Jong Un as a, “very talented man” who, “wants to do the right thing.” Kim is, gushed Trump, “a worthy negotiator … a very worthy, very smart negotiator.”  No kidding.

Kim Jong Un is, said the US president of a man who has imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of his citizens, a “funny guy” who “loves his people” has a “great personality.” It’s a “a great honor” the said, and they have a “very special bond.”

“I do trust him.”

Well, Mr. Trump, you are perhaps the only leader in the free world who does.

All this came from a man who just insulted and denigrated America’s longtime allies – Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, because they don’t bow to his whims. “A great honour” to have met with Kim Jong Un whom he reviled just months ago? How easily he can be played.

This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so tragically insane that the President of the United States could be so easily duped.

Trump says he has no doubt that Kim has made a strategic decision to give it all up.

“I think, honestly, I think he’s going to do these things,” Trump said. “I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’”

“I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that,” he added, “but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

He will never admit it - and he will find an excuse – or pretend he never said it.

This is not really a meditation on whether it was right for Trump to meet with Kim, or whether by doing so he legitimized a despot. You can make up your own mind.

Instead, let's examine whether, in a modern media age when we do so many things remotely and then move on with lightning speed, an old-fashioned tete-a-tete - no matter how high-profile or tabloidy - is still important of its own accord.

First of all, the notion of personal relationships - of actually looking someone in the eye - is of great importance in East Asia. No matter how heartfelt the letter, no matter how big the envelope, correspondence can easily fall short. Face-to-face interaction is far superior to any other form of contact - a version of what George W. Bush, referring years ago to Vladimir Putin, called the ability to “get a sense of his soul.”

People who seem intransigent or even sullen in writing or on the phone can bloom with generosity if you sit down together with a cup of tea or a glass of soju, Korea's clear and potent liquor. So, what might be considered a concession by some is, in much of East Asia, simply table stakes.

But what actually HAPPENED at the summit beyond the spectacle? What is really going to come out of this other than words? Isn't the act of meeting with Kim nothing more than a miscue that legitimizes his regime?

But what also happened was that they talked and shook hands and breathed the same air and walked away, by all appearances, in reasonably good moods. What happened was that 70 years of conflict were supplanted for a historical micromoment with a few hours of collegiality, at least on the surface. And in doing that Trump gave Kim Jong Un legitimacy in the free world.

South Korean media noticed that Trump wasn't domineering in his approach to Kim as he has been with some European leaders. What happened was that Kim appeared to hold his own in the spotlight - and that some people could thus conclude that the “hermit kingdom,” might not apply quite as much anymore. That has potential implications for North Korea.

In the end, the very questions - What actually happened? How did it end? Who was the winner and who was the loser? Those may be very American questions to ask -but the answers resonate globally.

Americans have a rich history of being an either-or nation. Encouraged even by the way they've made films and TV shows. For Americans, ambiguity - even in entertainment - is still a relatively rare phenomenon. They are black and white, big and small, yes and no, good guys and bad guys, and Hollywood endings to wrap it all up.

Reality, however, can be messier.

Above all else, Americans are a nation of spectacle and big stories. And Pyongyang? Pyongyang has practically made a doctrine out of spectacle in everything from its carefully co-ordinated rallies to the over-the-top rhetoric it wields against anyone who dares to nip at its ankles.

So, for two nations and two leaders so captivated by spectacle, could it be that spectacle is not just the means but also the end?

A generation or two ago, Canadian philosopher and media scholar Marshall McLuhan offered us the notion that “the medium is the message.” His quote has been used and overused for a half-century, a tired trope that nevertheless is relevant once again.

The message from Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un - whether you agree with it or not, and there's evidence on both sides - was that beyond the lacerating volleys of words and the threatened volleys of missiles that have hung over the two nations for decades, something might be possible.

Perhaps something concrete will be constructed from this particular event. Perhaps not.

But, if you’re a gambler, would you bet on it?

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