Kim Jong Un appeared to score an 'A+' victory — Trump's work is 'incomplete'

Key Points
  • Tuesday's U.S.-North Korea summit was heralded as a success by both parties, but Pyongyang may have emerged as the real winner.
  • The reclusive state not only won a halt of U.S.-South Korea joint drills, one of its major security concerns, it also benefited from the optics of international legitimacy.
  • Washington, on the other hand, only received a vague promise to denuclearize.
Here are some moments from President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un
Here are some moments from President Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un

North Korea's Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump both celebrated Tuesday's historic summit as a victory. But many experts see Kim, having won a substantial concession from the world's largest economy while simultaneously gaining greater claims to legitimacy, as the real winner.

Trump has been widely praised for calming tensions on the Korean Peninsula that threatened to escalate into full-blown conflict just six months ago. But, in the long run, his actions will only be a significant success if Kim delivers on his pledge to pursue complete denuclearization — a promise the authoritarian regime has made before.

"I suppose President Trump would get an incomplete ... for Chairman Kim Jong Un, it's an A+," David Adelman, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, told CNBC on Wednesday.

Miha Hribernik, head of Asia research at consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, echoed that sentiment in a post-summit note: "Kim Jong Un emerged as the clear winner, having extracted a number of concessions from the U.S. in exchange for little of substance."

What North Korea won

The country's ruler is now seen "as an equal" following Tuesday's summit, said Adelman. That's a major accomplishment for a state that's long been isolated from the international community.

When asked whether he regards Kim as an equal, the U.S. president on Tuesday said he didn't view the relationship in that way before saying he was willing to do "whatever it takes to make the world a safer place."

Equipped with praise from Trump, who multiple times called Kim "talented," and a respectful reception from Singapore's government, North Korea's ruler now appears more accessible to the world despite a dark human rights record. That will likely work in his favor by cementing his legitimacy at home and severely weakening opposition to his regime, according to Hribernik.

Did President Trump get played by Kim Jong Un?
Did President Trump get played by Kim Jong Un?

The fact that Kim barely made any concessions on Tuesday is also a feather in Pyongyang's cap.

"By committing to work 'towards' the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Kim has conceded no more than he did in the 27 April Panmunjom Declaration signed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in," said Alison Evans, deputy head of Asia Pacific Country Risk at IHS Markit. "Rather, the statement implicitly recognizes North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state," she continued.

Tuesday's agreement bears remarkable similarity to previous U.S.-North Korea communiques. For example, a joint statement on June 11, 1993 also agreed to the principle of "peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, including impartial application of fullscope safeguards" but like Tuesday's document, it didn't detail any concrete steps on how to do so.

Finally, Trump's comments on the U.S. military presence in the region are perhaps the biggest advantages to Pyongyang.

In suspending scheduled U.S.-South Korea military exercises that he denounced as "provocative" and stating that he would eventually like to see the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, Trump is effectively catering to Pyongyang, many warned.

Both factors have long been North Korean prerequisites for denuclearization and, according to Evans, constitute "substantial" concessions to Pyongyang's security concerns.

US success pending

Aside from reducing tensions, Trump's other accomplishments from the summit included gaining permission to resume recovering the remains of American troops in North Korea and a claimed promise from Kim — not included in the signed agreement — to dismantle a missile testing site.

But those just don't compare with Trump's concessions, analysts said.

Next steps for Trump and Kim Jong Un after their historic summit
Next steps for Trump and Kim Jong Un after their historic summit

Destroying an unknown testing site is "at best a token gesture that will have no impact on the country's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes," Hribernik stated.

In contrast, Trump's suggestion of freezing the so-called war games and his stated willingness to withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula indicates "the White House has forfeited a significant amount of leverage in any future negotiations," he continued.

But that doesn't mean the summit was a failure for Trump.

The Republican is widely expected to politically benefit from his claims the summit proves his ability as a deal-maker, which could sway voters ahead of the U.S. midterm elections in November.

"Only time will tell how successful this [summit] has been for the United States ... there have been deals before with Kim Jong Un, his father and his grandfather that ultimately did not lead to progress," said Adelman.