Assessment of the Singapore Summit
On June 12, U.S. president Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for a bilateral summit in Singapore. Prior to the meeting, U.S. and North Korean officials engaged in weeks of talks to hammer out the logistics for the summit and attempted to bridge significant differences on the primary issue of denuclearization.
The summit produced a joint statement that was signed by both leaders and pledged four basic items: (1) the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will establish new relations; (2) the United States and DPRK will make efforts to build a peace regime on the Korean peninsula; (3) the DPRK will work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and reaffirm the April 27, 2018, Panmunjom Declaration; and (4) the United States and DPRK will commit to the recovery and repatriation of the remains of American prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action in North Korea.
In a press conference following the signing of the joint statement, President Trump also unilaterally pledged that the United States would suspend annual U.S.–South Korea military exercises contingent upon “good faith” dialogue continuing with North Korea. Trump, speaking without Kim Jong-un present, also further stated that negotiations would continue with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean officials and that the DPRK had promised to destroy a facility for testing its ballistic missile engines. The issue of human rights was reportedly brought up in bilateral discussions between the two sides, but there was no substantive mention made in the joint statement.
Q1: Did President Donald Trump make history?
A1: Yes. The summit was undeniably a historic event as President Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to meet face-to-face with a North Korean leader. By doing so, he created “audience costs” for the DPRK leader with the international community that had never existed for the reclusive regime before.
Kim showed deference to his elder counterpart by arriving earlier for the meeting and used Korean honorifics. Trump hosted and gestured like an uncle to a younger nephew (though uncles are always in danger with Kim Jong-un!). These small summit gestures do achieve modest trust-building and relationship-building gains that a normal diplomatic demarche could not.
It should not be forgotten, however, that Kim probably made more history than Trump, as he accomplished a long-sought goal of his grandfather and father to sit face-to-face with the world’s superpower. Singapore will be remembered as Kim’s “coming out” party as leader of the world’s newest nuclear weapons state. That will be the domestic narrative in North Korea.
Q2: Are we safer as a result of this summit?
A2: Not entirely. Diplomatic engagement between the United States and North Korea certainly puts us in a better place than last year when the North performed 20 ballistic missile tests and a hydrogen bomb detonation, and President Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea if it endangered the United States.
The summit joint statement lacks a great deal of detail on denuclearization. There is no commitment to a declaration of weapons. There is no commitment to verification. There is no timeline. The 2005 Six-Party joint statement had more definitive commitments for the North (“abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”) than achieved in this document. However, the summit suggests that a diplomatic negotiation will be instituted to implement the broad mandates of the two leaders. This will ensure, at least in the interim, that North Korean crisis-inducing provocations are not likely. As CSIS Beyond Parallel data shows, North Korea has been less prone to engage in provocative activities, such as missile launches or nuclear tests, over the past 25 years when they are at the negotiating table with the United States, either in a bilateral or multilateral setting. While the absence of kinetic provocations takes us off the crisis track of 2017, it does not necessarily suggest a decrease of the overall threat levels, as the absence of testing does not mean weapons of mass destruction (WMD) development has ceased in the country. Until International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are back in North Korea suspending operations, sealing buildings, and installing monitoring cameras, this summit has taken us off the crisis path but has not made us necessarily safer.
Q3: What are we looking for in negotiations going forward?
A3: Two things: Momentum and results. Diplomacy is often about momentum—following the summit, the negotiations must produce some early results or “wins” in order for all parties to place faith and political capital in the process. The single most important step that would distinguish this process from previous failed attempts would be a full and complete declaration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, weapons precursors, facilities, and expertise that would be fully verified by the IAEA. Practically speaking, the negotiations cannot move forward unless the United States knows what it is negotiating over in terms of WMD and missiles. For North Korea, early results in terms of sanctions lifting will be sought, as well as progress on defining a path to peaceful and normalized political relations.
Trump suggested that the first benchmark for a deliverable is the fall when he said he would invite Kim to the White House, presumably on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
Concurrently, the United States and other regional partners must maintain a robust level of coordination to determine the parameters of diplomatic, security, and economic “carrots” for North Korea going forward. Maintaining diplomatic momentum set in motion by the Trump-Kim summit will be a key to achieving an enduring peace in the region.
Q4: What were North Korea’s goals in this summit and did they achieve them?
A4: Kim Jong-un wanted at least three things coming into the meeting with President Trump. He wanted international legitimacy, a complete makeover of the image of himself and his country, and some significant concessions from the United States, such as sanctions relief and a reduction of the U.S. military threat. The primary goal of the North Korean state has long been to gain international acceptance as a legitimate and full-fledged nuclear power. For this summit in Singapore, Kim wanted to achieve global legitimacy and to begin a negotiation process with the Trump administration that will lead to sanctions relief while giving as little away as possible. Kim has wildly succeeded in meeting these goals.
He has achieved what his father and grandfather couldn’t achieve: command an audience with the president of the United States without giving anything away. Kim has achieved a level of international prestige that the North has long sought. He was out and about in Singapore before meeting with Trump, even taking selfies, while being treated like a rock star everywhere he went. North Korean camera operators accompanied him, filming every move for propaganda back home.
Every step of the way, Kim worked overtime to come across as a reasonable world leader and for the North to be seen as an equal to the United States. The United States has tried in its own way to help the North in this effort, even taking care to place the national flags of North Korea side by side with American flags, just as North Korean negotiators had demanded. President Trump repeatedly flattered Kim, saying that the two have a “very special bond” and that it was “a great honor” to meet with him.
The four points Kim and Trump have agreed to are not new. The statement that the North “commits to work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” is an old, familiar phrase, which was introduced in 1992 when the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea was signed. In the aftermath of this summit, North Korea has been able to achieve a level of international legitimacy it has long sought without committing to full denuclearization, providing a complete declaration of its nuclear weapons program, or even any kind of timeline. All the North had to do was agree to a statement of principles showing good intent, and that was good enough for President Trump.
Not only did Trump legitimize Kim, but he also agreed to suspend the U.S.–South Korea joint military exercises. In so doing, he apparently caught both the South Korean government and the U.S. military command in South Korea by surprise. Stopping the joint exercises has been a long-term goal for North Korea and China. Trump delivered it while getting nothing in return beyond the same generalities that North Korea has been offering since the early 1990s.
All of the major challenges with North Korea lie ahead. Secretary of State Pompeo will now have to undertake the kind of arduous, multiyear negotiations with Pyongyang that former secretary of state John Kerry undertook with Tehran. Trump has assailed Obama’s deal with Iran as the “worst ever,” but he now faces substantial challenges to achieve as much as Obama did. Based on what has happened so far, nuclear diplomacy has been a big win for North Korea.
Q5: What’s next?
A5: The United States will brief allies and partners on the results of the meeting. Russian president Vladimir Putin will probably seek a meeting with Kim as well. Chinese president Xi Jinping will probably go to Pyongyang to get briefed. And a meeting between Kim and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe may also be under consideration, though frankly, Abe needs the meeting more than Kim does.
Despite its many flaws, the Singapore Summit represents the start of a diplomatic process that takes us away from the brink of nuclear war that we were potentially headed toward only six months ago. North Korea is the land of lousy options, and while the Singapore Summit’s outcome is not great, it is less bad than the path to war.
Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Sue Mi Terry is a senior fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.
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