Two Years since Singapore: Did Kim Outplay Trump?

Two years ago, President Donald Trump and North Korean (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore for the first North Korea-U.S. summit. It was a historically unprecedented event that riveted the entire world. Two more meetings took place: in Hanoi in February 2019 and at Panmunjom in July 2019. What has been achieved in the past two years? And what does the road ahead portend?

Q1: What are the main takeaways from the Trump-Kim Singapore summit?

A1: There are two main takeaways that were evident at the time and have become even clearer with the benefit of hindsight. First, Kim was offered legitimacy on the world stage with multiple meetings with Trump, as well as with other world leaders in China, Singapore, and Vietnam. Second, the fanfare associated with the Singapore joint statement both leaders agreed on belied the lack of substance and commitment by both sides to reach a meaningful deal. Washington will not commit to sanctions relief without assurances of denuclearization, while Pyongyang’s amassed arsenal of weapons and delivery systems lessens the likelihood that it would commit to verifiable denuclearization. These meetings were largely photo ops as opposed to meaningful steps toward achieving peace on the Korean peninsula.

Q2: What was in the Singapore agreement?

A2: The Singapore summit joint statement enumerated four principles of U.S.-North Korea relations:

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

Q3: How much of the agreement has been carried out?

A3: Of the four clauses, arguably only one has been carried out, albeit partially, and that was the repatriation of 55 U.S. troop POW/MIA remains one month after Singapore. Unfortunately, hopes for more repatriations vanished after the February 2019 summit. The vast majority of 5,300 estimated U.S. troop remains in North Korea are still unclaimed.

There has been little to no progress on the other three channels: U.S.-North Korea relations, peace regime, and denuclearization. Trump also admitted that he and Kim discussed the issue of human rights, but the absence of any mention in the joint statement has since allowed both leaders to backpedal on addressing the issue. Trump has not even appointed a U.S. special envoy for human rights in North Korea. The failure to hold North Korea to account for its massive human rights violations was a win for Kim.

The most surprising concession Trump revealed in Singapore in his post-summit press conference was his commitment to suspend joint military exercises with South Korea. What was even more surprising was that Trump failed to consult either the Pentagon or U.S. ally South Korea prior to making this pledge. Most of 2019 consisted of a constant back-and-forth match of small-scale U.S.-South Korean exercises met with North Korean provocations. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced an indefinite postponement of joint military drills in an “act of goodwill” in late 2019. Despite this, North Korea cut off diplomatic channels with the United States while Kim Jong-un took a hardline stance during his party plenum speech.

Q4: Has there been progress on denuclearization as a result of the Singapore summit?

A4: Despite all of its warts, the Singapore summit and Trump’s claimed bromance with Kim could be justified if it leads to some cessation or rollback of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities. Indeed, Kim did commit to a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear or long-range ballistic missile testing, which is a win for Trump as it removes the primary political accelerant for a near-war crisis, like we saw in 2017 when North Korea carried out 20 ballistic missile tests and a hydrogen bomb test.

Aside from this one concession, however, North Korea has continued to perfect targeting, guidance, and fuel capacities of its short-range missile systems; grow its warhead stockpiles; and amass more weapons-grade fissile material. Indeed, Kim Jong-un’s January 2020 speech at the 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea made ominous promises that run contrary to the spirit of the Singapore statement, including announcing the imminent demonstration of a new strategic weapon and ending the testing moratorium on nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

North Korea reportedly renewed its commitment to dismantle the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) Launch Facility in late January 2019, but satellite imagery analysis revealed renewed rebuilding activity at the site just two days after the breakdown at the Hanoi summit. Two months later, North Korea resumed missile provocations after a nearly 17-month hiatus with a short-range ballistic missile launch on May 4, 2019. Missile provocations—including ones that introduced new technology such as the “super-large multiple rocket launcher”—continued throughout the rest of 2019. North Korea announced a new submarine in July 2019, suspected to be its first true ballistic missile submarine, and revealed the Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile during an October test launch. Recent satellite imagery shows facilities that provide the core feedstock for the nuclear fuel used in its plutonium and uranium programs to be fully operational and growing. This record does not reflect any progress toward denuclearization since Singapore.

Q5: What is the road ahead?

A5: The Singapore summit’s underwhelming accomplishments may still be overshadowed by what is left to come in 2020. North Korea has shown a historical tendency to ramp up provocations in U.S. presidential elections years. Moreover, the window in which the provocations occur in the run-up to, and in the aftermath of, the November election has narrowed. Indeed in the first quarter of 2020, before the onset of Covid-19, the frequency of North Korean provocations closely resembles that of the first quarter of 2017—the “fire and fury” year.

North Korea’s announcement this week of the severing of all communication lines with the engagement-oriented South Korea is another ominous signal of what’s to come. Kim seems to be following a family tradition of ramping up provocations to improve his WMD systems and raise the ante for an eventual return to diplomacy—either in a Trump second term or a Joe Biden first term. The one novel element this time around might be the role assigned to Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, in an effort to build her leadership credentials, a prerequisite if she is to eventually replace or work alongside her brother, whose health remains a question mark.

Q6: Was Singapore worth it?

A6: Despite the underperforming record on both sides, was the Singapore summit still worthwhile? The most important accomplishment of the meeting was to provide each leader with an exit ramp from the near-war crisis of 2017.

Both of us wrote in January 2018 about the dangers inherent in the situation, and later journalistic accounts reveal how miscalculation on either side could have easily ramped up into an inadvertent military conflict. South Korea’s invitation to North Korea to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and the Singapore summit, in this sense, opened a path to diplomacy that would test the hypothesis that the missing ingredient in decades of failed U.S. nuclear diplomacy with North Korea was a deal sealed at the highest level, with the only individual in the country who can make a decision about denuclearization. We must now contend with the results of that test.

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair and is senior adviser 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.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Sue Mi Terry