Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have become the first sitting US President and North Korean leader to meet — a historic development that comes after a year of exchanging threats. But is the summit a false dawn or will it spell real peace?
The first ever summit meeting between a sitting US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, since the end of the Korean War in Singapore, was indeed historic. The Korean War (1950-53) had ended with a truce and without a peace treaty, leaving both South and North Koreas technically at war. The core message of the summit was that it was a triumph of diplomacy. It was also a gentle reminder of Richard Nixon’s ground-breaking 1972 visit to Beijing, thereby normalising relations with China. The issue at the table was how to denuclearise North Korea. From the very start, the issue of denuclearisation was problematic as the interpretation of what it meant was different for both sides. What preceded the summit proposal was immersed in uncertainty, lurking doubts if the summit would ever take place. But diplomacy finally prevailed and Trump and Kim met and in a major breakthrough, signed the “comprehensive pact”, prompting Trump to announce soon enough that the denuclearisation process will begin soon.
In a joint text issued after the meeting, Kim committed to “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. The statement was almost immediately endorsed by China, North Korea’s principal ally and benefactor. Earlier, Trump announced that both he and Kim signed an unspecified document, which he called “pretty comprehensive”. From his side, Kim announced that both sides decided to “leave the past” behind and that “the world shall see a major change”.
The summit finally happening after a year of exchanging warmongering threats and personal insults was truly historic. Kim having committed to “complete denuclearisation”, both leaders vowed in the joint agreement to establish “new” relations between the two countries. However, the text made no mention of the US demands for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation” or CVID, which implied scrapping weapons and committing to inspections.
From a time when both exchanged vitriolic diatribes and bellicose statements, to hear Trump say that he had formed a “special bond” with Kim and expressed willingness to invite him to the White House was music to many ears. But the truism is that the dramatic turnaround is real. That is how modern diplomacy is being conducted, with Trump leaving his own style. Hailing his “excellent” relationship with Kim, Trump predicted that both will “solve” the Korean Peninsula stand-off and that the 40-minute meeting was a “tremendous success”.
The instant bonhomie had to be seen to be believed, despite the huge age gap between the two — the 12-second handshake as they met for the first time in front of a dozen American and North Korean flags on the steps of the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore, with Trump patting Kim on the arm and sharing some words before posing for the cameras. The body language demonstrated warmth as both expressed optimism even when the meeting took place. While Kim greeted Trump with the words: “Nice to meet you, Mr President”, Trump returned the compliment with the words: “We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.” Kim admitted that the path was not easy as past prejudices and practices worked as obstacles, which would be successfully overcome by sustained diplomacy. It was not known what exactly both discussed during their one-on-one meeting, though North Korea’s denuclearisation was on the agenda. Trump said his talks with Kim were “better than anybody could imagine”.
On a lighter note, Kim remarked through an interpreter: “Many people in the world will think of this as a form of fantasy from a science fiction movie,” before heading for the airport after the signing ceremony.
From the available information at the time of writing, here is what transpired. Kim committed Pyongyang to “working towards” the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in an agreement with Trump, as well as “peace and prosperity”. Both sides also agreed to recover the remains of prisoners of war from the conflict between North and South Korea, and the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
However, analysts expressed disappointment with the vague nature of the agreement, limited scope and the lack of specific details. For example, Robert Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, felt the text was “even thinner than most sceptics anticipated”. Kelly expected that Trump would bargain for and get at least some missiles or a site closure or something concrete. Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis was also doubtful. He expressed disappointment on how the joint statement from the “epochal” Singapore summit stacks up with other historic documents on denuclearisation. According to him, there was nothing new that emerged from the joint statement.
Chad O’Carroll of the Korea Risk Group decodes the text and raises two key points: How will Trump make “security guarantees to the DPRK” genuinely credible, and that answer will impact Kim’s roadmap to “denuclearisation of the Peninsula”. Adding to this two more points: Talk of “mutual confidence-building” suggests step-by-step process, meaning Trump administration is flexible on prior insistence of CVID up-front’; and the DPRK and US will have “join efforts” to build lasting peace, but there’s no mention of getting it done before 2018, as per the April 27 agreement.
There was further lack of clarity. The term ‘denuclearisation’ remained unexplained as interpretation by either side is completely different. While for the US, denuclearisation means North Korea dismantling its nuclear arsenal, for Pyongyang, it means scaling down of the US forces from both South Korea and Japan, besides ending the annual military drill between the US and South Korea. Further, there was no mention of missile, an issue that was brought to the fore in 2017. Also, the text on MIA remains implies the US military figures will be visiting North Korea. As contained in the joint text, the US and North Korea commit to recovering PoW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified. However, commitment to “expeditious” implementation is good.
The most important of those four key points in the joint text is the third point in which both Trump and Kim “commit to work towards the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”. Indeed, there is plenty of wriggle room in committing to work toward denuclearisation. The joint text clearly mentions thus: “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong-Un reaffirmed his form and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.
According to Jonathan Cheng of the Wall Street Journal, there are four key points in the Trump-Kim declaration. First, the US and North Korea commit to establishing new relations in accordance with the desire of the people of the two countries for peace and prosperity. Second, both would make efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Third, reaffirming the April 27 Panmunjom Declaration, North Korea commits to work towards the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. And fourth, both sides commit to recover PoW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
China welcomed the summit as “historic”. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi observed the fact that the two leaders “can sit together and have equal talks has important and positive meaning, and is creating new history”. He also talked of the need for a peace mechanism for the Peninsula. While calling for “full denuclearisation” to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Wang Yi observed: “Resolving the nuclear issue, on the one hand of course, is denuclearisation, full denuclearisation. At the same time, there needs to be a peace mechanism for the Peninsula, to resolve North Korea’s reasonable security concerns”. It needs to be remembered that Beijing is Pyongyang’s sole major ally and main trading partner. However, it supported others in implementing a slew of UN sanctions to punish the North over its nuclear and missile tests. Yet, Beijing welcomed Kim twice in quick succession, prior to the latter’s summit with Trump. That China continues to remain relevant in any peace process in the Korean Peninsula remains unquestioned. Despite tensions, the Cold War era allies sought to mend ties recently, and Kim even borrowed an Air China plane to travel to the landmark summit with Trump in Singapore.
The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres welcome the summit outcome and said it is “a promising development for global peace and security”. Terming the summit as an “extremely important event”, Guterres conceded credit to both Trump and Kim for agreeing to “engage in a constructive negotiation to reach an objective” whose ultimate goal is “peaceful and verifiable denuclearisation of North Korea”.
Expressing distrust, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif referred to Trump as the “habitual Deal-Breaker-in-Chief”. It may be recalled that Trump broke the agreement signed by Barack Obama on the nuclear issue with Iran. Iran reminded Kim that the US has a history of “quitting treaties and violating commitments”.
Interestingly, while Trump ignored a question about whether he discussed with Kim about Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was held in a North Korean labour camp, and died shortly after being flown back to the US, Kim did not reply when asked if he was willing to give up nuclear weapons. Kim’s silence on the nuclear question could be open to interpretation, if he retracts his stance as was in the past. Notwithstanding the much optimism that stems from the joint text, there could be always risk of decisions already taken being derailed.
But it is significant to note that what seemed unthinkable months ago happened and ended on a positive note, at least for the time being. The specter of growing nuclear threat, that looked real some months ago, has now receded. In the run-up to the summit, Trump had indicated that he might strike a nuclear deal or forge a formal end to the Korean War in the course of a single meeting or over several days, but as it transpired, Trump left Singapore soon after the meeting, on the evening of June 12 itself. This raises questions if his aspirations for an ambitious outcome had been scaled back.
The South Korean President Moon Jae-in was the most exuberant. Having laboured really hard for the summit to happen, he was pleased that it finally took place. He had made expansive outreach to the North with two summit meetings with Kim within a month. No wonder, he “hardly slept” before the summit and watched live broadcast of the summit with his Cabinet colleagues at the Blue House.
When Trump and Kim took a moonlight stroll following a handshake, critics were quick to say that Trump was legitimising Kim on the world stage as his equal. Trump was quick to respond to the critics by saying that researches and launches have stopped for now.
By arriving with a positive outcome soon after Trump shocked the US allies by using a meeting in Canada of the Group of Seven industrialised economies to alienate America’s closest friends in the West, Trump seemed to have salvaged some of the damages he caused to America’s reputation. At the G-7 summit, Trump had lashed out over trade practices and lobbied insults at his G-7 host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. His change in dynamics in Singapore from his earlier threats of “fire and fury” against Kim and the latter’s scorn at Trump as a “mentally deranged US dotard” was a dramatic volte face. Besides, both leaders may reap some political fortunes; the summit could shape the fate of the impoverished citizens of North Korea and tens of millions living in the shadow of North’s nuclear threat in South Korea, Japan and some parts of the US and elsewhere. Kim seems to have been convinced of the security guarantee provided by the US as spelled out by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said the US was prepared to take action to provide North Korea with “sufficient certainty” that denuclearisation “is not something that ends badly for them”. Though Pompeo did not clarify if that included the possibility of withdrawing US troops from the Korean Peninsula, he did say that the US was “prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique than America’s been willing to provide previously”.
Both sides covered the distance in a relatively short span of time. Yet, despite the positive vibes that stem from the summit, it is anybody’s guess if Trump and Kim can pull off a Nixon-Mao type breakthrough. There is a lack of clarity in what both leaders agreed upon. Though Kim agreed to denuclearise, no deadline was announced. China was not mentioned, though the world knows that Beijing’s role in any resolution on the Korean issue remains crucial. It also remains unclear if the thaw in ties would lead to formal establishment of diplomatic relations. No mention was also made on how to tame the hardliners in their respective countries.
The most significant statement made by Trump after the summit was that the US would halt military exercises with Seoul, something long sought by Pyongyang. Pyongyang has long been insisting that the presence of US troops in the South as well as its nuclear umbrella over the East Asian allies — South Korea and Japan — are part of America’s hostile policy towards the North.
Trump’s vow to end war drills stunned the region. Trump further termed the drills as “expensive and provocative”. This announcement rocked East Asia. These too seemingly upended decades of the US defence posture on the Korean Peninsula. This was a reversal of the countless previous declarations by the US political and military officials over the years that the drills are routine, defensive, and absolutely critical. Trump claimed that by ending the war games, the US would save tremendous amount of money. Officials in South Korea were left completely off-guard with the announcement as the presence of the US troops has long been described as necessary to maintaining peace. Seoul reacted almost immediately by saying that there was no prior discussion with Washington on this. The next drills are set for August and Seoul is definitely confused.
Trump further added that “at some point”, he wanted to withdraw 28,500 US troops stationed in the South as a deterrent against North Korea. This could have huge implication as it would imply abrogation of the security alliance between the US and South Korea and later Japan. Japan and South Korea would be compelled to revisit their security postures if the reliance on the US for security protection comes under doubt. It is here that Trump and Pompeo need to coordinate and clarify what could be the real US policy, so there is no scope for confusion.
For now, the status quo is likely to remain largely unchanged. However, the joint document and Trump’s subsequent press conference remarks reveal a number of opportunities for both to test each other’s sincerity, flexibility, and understanding on key topics of contention. The window is open for both to work out and identify both positive and negatives in the short-to-medium term and look for solutions that are lasting.
Despite the positive summit outcome, there is little possibility that sanctions will discontinue so soon until North Korea denuclearises and the US could even increase pressure if diplomatic discussions do not progress positively, as expected. Pompeo clarified that the US will not lift economic sanctions against North Korea until Pyongyang fully eliminates its nuclear weapons capability. Those who hold the view that Kim is unlikely to quickly give up his hard-won nukes could have merit. Yet, the hope that diplomacy could replace animosity between the two cannot be dismissed either. Optimists would see the summit as a trendsetter.
In the US, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was scathing in her attack on the manner Trump conducted diplomacy in Singapore. She said: “Nuclear non-proliferation is a pillar of America’s national security. We respect any serious and real diplomatic efforts to achieve that goal on the Korean Peninsula. Apparently, the President handed Kim Jong-un concessions in exchange for vague promises that do not approach a clear and comprehensive pathway to denuclearisation and non-proliferation. In his haste to reach an agreement, President Trump elevated North Korea to the level of the US, while preserving the regime’s status quo. The millions of families currently living in fear of nuclear weapons in the region deserve strong and smart leadership built on diplomacy and engagement with our regional partners and allies. The President’s marginalisation of the vast expertise of the State Department and his habitual disparaging of our allies as demonstrated at the G7 Forum hinders a lasting, stable pathway to peace.”
The immediate positive result of the summit is that both Trump and Kim helped bring the world back from a “nuclear catastrophe”. Trump was triumphant in saying that by agreeing to give up nuclear weapons and embracing commerce and engagement, Kim has before him the opportunity to be remembered as the leader who ushered in a glorious new era of security and prosperity for his citizens.
Despite so much optimism, there remained a black spot. Human rights activists saw the summit as a missed opportunity, as the issue was not raised. Many analysts might see the summit as a victory for Kim, but what the summit overlooked was that the totalitarian regime functions under extreme censorship and forced labour camps. There is no individual freedom and a North Korean citizen can be jailed for almost anything. There are between 80,000 and 120,000 people in prisons across the country. With a strictly controlled economy, much of the nation’s resources are funnelled into its missile and nuclear programme, ignoring widespread shortages of basic necessities. According to the UN, 41 per cent of the total population of 25 million remains undernourished, while the country’s elites enjoy relatively comfortable lives in Pyongyang.
In conclusion, it can be said that it was a truly dramatic turnaround and a great improvement over the nuclear saber-rattling of not so long ago. But what is most confusing is that though both agreed to work together towards denuclearising the Korean Peninsula, there was no definition on what that means. Trump agreed to stop the military drills, which could be seen as a major concession to Kim, but no details were given. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientist observed in an article: “The whole thing sounds remarkably like a version of what Vermont Senator George Aiken reputedly offered in 1966 as the solution to the Vietnam War: ‘We should declare victory, and go home.’” So, the world needs to know more on what transpired during the summit.
Dr Panda, former Senior Fellow at the IDSA, was until recently ICCR Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan
Writer: The Pioneer
Courtesy: The Pioneer