The meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore was dubbed historic; and historic it was, for this was the first time in 70 years the leader of the free world had held a summit with his North Korean counterpart. The scenes were stark: The interleaved US and North Korean flags and the minimalist ambience of the exclusive Capella resort on Sentosa Island did their part to underline the unusual nature of the event. The show was impressive, yet a far cry from the flawless choreography of the summit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim in April.
Kim and Trump attended a bilateral meeting for about 40 minutes and then held five hours of talks, which culminated in the signing of a joint statement. It promised that: “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Its language did not get more specific than that. As a matter of fact, North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization did not go beyond what it had promised in the Panmunjom Declaration after the first Moon-Kim summit. It was also reminiscent of North Korean promises to the Clinton administration in 1993, which in the end led nowhere.
The world had expected, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had promised, “CVID” (complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization), which the US was clearly not able to obtain (Trump’s excuse that there was not enough time to come to that agreement is moot — the summit had been in preparation for three months, during which time Pompeo had paid two visits to Pyongyang). National security experts took exception to the fact that the US was willing to give “security guarantees” without obtaining CVID.
The joint statement was vague and unspecific, which in itself does not necessarily constitute a problem. This was a first meeting and details will have to be sorted out in later negotiations, which will be led by Pompeo for the US.
Things became more difficult when Trump made several unilateral concessions during his one-hour press conference following the summit. He said he would stop his country’s “war games” because they were “provocative.” He was referring to the joint military exercises of the 28,000-strong US armed forces on the Korean Peninsula with the South Korean army. These exercises are not war games — they have a purely defensive purpose aimed at ensuring that the two armies can work together at a moment’s notice in the case of aggression.
Trump went further to speculate that, at some time in the future, he might bring home the troops from Korea and from Japan, which has an additional 50,000 men stationed on its soil. He may in part have played to his base at home, which would like to see “the boys” come home, while cheering the president on when he asserts that the US is paying more than its fair share to defend the free world. While it might have been music to the ears of his supporters in Kentucky and Ohio, it left his allies worried and bewildered. The Blue House (South Korea’s administration) issued a statement to the effect that it had to confer with Trump to ascertain the meaning of the concession.
Trump also played into the hands of Beijing and Moscow, for whom the presence of US troops in Northeast Asia has long been a thorn in the side. In particular, China’s military presence in the Pacific has become ever more assertive over the last decade. It came as little surprise then when, immediately after Trump’s press conference, the Chinese foreign ministry held a briefing of its own praising the summit and advocating a relaxation of sanctions (Trump advocated that sanctions ought to stay in place until North Korea delivered on some of its promises). The state-run Chinese tabloid Global Times was even bolder in asserting that the leading role in any economic development of North Korea was in the purview of China and South Korea, not the US.
The security aspect is so crucial because the economic success stories of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would be unthinkable without the security blanket the US has provided over the last 70 years. The reaction to the summit from Japan was both polite and eerily silent
Going forward, it will be important to come up with a framework that gives a voice to US allies Japan and South Korea. Russia is an interested party too as it shares a border and historically friendly relations with North Korea.
The six-party talks were the George W. Bush administration’s framework to try and deal with the North Korea issue. Things were easier then, because Pyongyang only had to stop developing nuclear weapons in the early 2000s, whereas now Kim will have to give up an actual arsenal. The six-party talks led nowhere in spite of that. The Bush administration’s framework had a point, in as much as it gathered all the interested parties around a table: The US, North and South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
Lastly, Kim certainly wishes for more economic development in his country. However, North Korea is under a one party/one man rule and dictatorship is the Kim family business. The North Korean supreme leader may look with a certain level of trepidation at what could happen if his country’s borders opened up because of economic development and integration with the rest of the world. This may be good for his people, but it may at the same undermine his unassailable position as North Korea’s sole ruler.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources