While friendly dialogue at the Singapore Summit was preferable to the previously belligerent exchanges between the US and North Koreanleaders, Maxwell Downman cautions against naïve expectations
On 12 June, President Trump and Kim Jong-un met in Singapore amidst theatre and pageantry for the first ever meeting between the United States and North Korean Heads of State. Commentators were left in shock as Trump shook hands with the leader of the so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’ in front of both countries’ flags and revealed a joint declaration that appeared to have little substance.
The joint communiqué outlined four broad goals for the United States and North Korea, establishing a new bilateral relation for peace and prosperity, efforts to build a stable peace regime on the Peninsula, North Korea’s commitment to work towards complete ‘denuclearisation’ of the Peninsula, and the commitment to recoverthe bodies of United States citizens from the Korean War. At its core Washington offered vague future security guarantees to Pyongyang in return for an equally vague commitment to denuclearisation.
Critically, the statement made no mention of ‘complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament’ (CVID), the language Washington had been seeking, instead merely committing North Korea to ‘complete denuclearisation.’As I have noted in these pages before, Pyongyang’s understanding of ‘denuclearisation,’ is different from that of the United States.The US had been pushing for a stronger commitment, and when it became clear before the summit that the DPRK would not deliver, it looked as if the meeting would be called off. Washington’s decision to go ahead with the summit without Pyongyang agreeing to CVID has been seen as a diplomatic coup for Kim Jong-un.
Indeed, the statement’s wording is weaker than previous statements from North Korea. In 2005 the joint statement from the six-party talks managed to include the word ‘verifiable’ and committed Pyongyang to ‘abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs’ as well as return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards regime. Last month’s communiqué contained no such language.
Immediately after the summit, Trump announced the United States would halt joint-military exercises with South Korea – a long-standing demand of Pyongyang – labelling them ‘provocative war games’.In return, North Korea would supposedly dismantle a missile engine testing site. Following Trump’s statement, made without consulting South Korea, the Pentagon has confirmed they willindeed suspend all planning for August’s defensive ‘wargame’. Yet when asked if he could ‘put his finger on’ any steps by Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, US Defence Secretary Mattis admitted he was unaware of any.
Since then commentary has focused on analysing who ‘won’ at the summit, with most agreeing that the summit ended with North Korea scoring two major goals, versus the United States on zero. First, Washington conceded on holding the summit without preconditions, rehabilitating the leader of the isolated state and normalising Kim’s status as a statesman. Second, Trump agreed to suspend joint-military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, without any concessions from Pyongyang.
Yet we should be wary of accepting this ‘win-lose’ dynamic of analysing relations with North Korea. At best the summit was the start of a process, with a flurry of diplomatic initiatives being set in motion by Trump’s impulsive decision to meet Kim Jong-un. In the following weeks, both Secretaryof State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton are due to visit Pyongyang for follow-on negotiations. While there is no specific timeline for these, August will be seen as a de-facto deadline. Trump will need to be seen as making more progress to justify halting military exercises. Following that, it is expected the Administration want a firmer agreement by 2020 ahead of the next US elections. This goal may be unrealistic.
First, there is still little evidence that Kim Jong-un is serious about giving up his nuclear weapons in the near future. The Singapore Summit did little to change the fact that Kim views nuclear weapons as the supreme guarantor of the survival of the North Korean regime. It is uncertain what sort of security guarantees the United States could provide that would replace the value of nuclear weapons in the eyes of Kim in the short term.
Moreover, much of Kim’s actions to date have sought to present North Korea as a responsible nuclear weapon state, including his New Year’s speech which led to the latest round of negotiations. This would suggest that North Korea is determined to follow the example of India, by attempting to weather the political storm of nuclear proliferation. The charm offensive Kim launched at both the Panmunjom Summit between the two Koreas and the Singapore Summit has already begun to change his image from that ofthe evil despot of a rogue state into an ‘international statesman’. If others can get the international community to begrudgingly accept their nuclear weapon status, why not North Korea?
Secondly, recent developments may discourage North Korea from honouring its commitment to ‘denuclearisation’. For example, North Korea may be able to leverage worsening relations between the United States and China, to achieve sanctions relief and pursue economic growth. If the United States is convinced its ‘maximum pressure’ strategy is responsible for bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, a claim that is dubious, it may be undermining its approach. With the United States launching a trade war against China, China could remove its support for US-led sanctions in retaliation.
Since the summit, Kim has already visited Beijing. Here, Kim had the opportunity to persuade China that its slower phased approach to ‘denuclearisation’ is preferable to the US’ roadmap.Moreover, Beijing has already said it is thinking about some form of sanctions relief since the summit, and cross-border trade restrictions between the two have already been relaxed, according to some sources. Moscow has similarly advocated for sanctions relief. And in Seoul, President Moon Jae-in may be willing to prioritise inter-Korean peace over immediate disarmament if détente seems possible.
While these represent obstacles to Trump negotiating nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula, continuing dialogue and diplomacy can reduce nuclear risks. The challenge now is to ensure that the process begun at the Singapore Summit improves relations with North Korea, even if a final solution isnot possible. Diplomats should be wary of tallying up short-term wins and losses in negotiations. Rather we should look at whether nuclear risks have grown or receded since the summit.It is clear that the camaraderie of the summit is a much better place to be compared to the infantile situation of a few months ago,when Trump and Kim were preoccupied with comparing the size of their respective nuclear buttons.
Yet this should not blind us to the fundamental difference of positions between the United States and North Korea. No state has ‘denuclearised’ since the 1990s, when Ukraine eliminated nuclear weapons left behind by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is naïve to expect North Korea will be the first to do so after a single summit, when the fundamentals of the crisis have not changed. Diplomacy should not be reduced to tallying victories in a reality TV-style summit; it requires more than empty handshakes and vacuous statements. Here, Trump’s statements that there is ‘no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea’ and that the crisis is ‘largely solved’ ring hollow.