If there is one event in recent times that has taken the world by storm, it is the summit between North Korean President Kim Jong Un and his US counterpart Donald Trump at Singapore. The successful summit is likely to ease decades-long tensions in the US-North Korean relationship. The world at large sees the summit as an achievement by itself. Trump is likely to get the credit for being the first US president since World War II to meet a North Korean president while in office. Apparently, no US president has even condescended to have a telephonic conversation with his North Korean counterpart.
Trump, on the contrary, has come across as a pugnacious individual with a penchant for belligerence and bluntness. His track record so far has only pushed the US towards confrontation with other countries. Trump’s recent action in walking out of the nuclear deal with Iran and the virtual declaration of a trade war with his allies — the European Union, India and China — are clearly aimed at unsettling established agreements.
The US president’s mindset, that has been the subject of much alarm, introspection and derision in his country, was seen as one that did not care for political correctness or nuanced diplomacy. World leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have already had a taste of Trump in dealings with him.
On the other hand, the fact that young Kim, the inscrutable leader of a nation that is little known to the outside world, deigned to broach the idea of a summit equally flummoxed everyone. He, who gives out measured responses in the controlled North Korean style, has so far not indicated what pushed him into inviting Trump for a face-to-face talk. According to various accounts, Kim may have been willy-nilly forced into reconciliation by China for creating a peaceful environment in the continent. If that is so, credit goes to China too.
The very fact that Trump and Kim Jong-Un met and held consecutive meetings that stretched for four hours, immediately lowers temperatures in the Korean Peninsula and gives lasting peace a chance at some point in the future.
Surprisingly, Trump rocked the world with the stunning announcement on June 12 that he was halting annual U.S.-South Korean military drills and wants to remove the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South as a deterrent against North Korea. The remarks contradicted countless previous declarations by U.S. political and military officials over the years that the drills are routine, defensive and absolutely critical.
In the brief joint statement after the summit, Kim reiterated his “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula, while Trump offered security guarantees to the North. Kim had earlier promised to denuclearise the peninsula in return for security assurances, while Trump had promised that the North would be welcomed into the international community as a respectable member and be allowed to prosper economically. The two leaders have put these demands and promises into a document that could guide future diplomatic engagement.
While the summit itself is a big success given the distance both countries travelled in a relatively short span of time, it is too early to say whether Trump and Kim can pull off a Nixon-Mao type breakthrough. The joint statement provided few specifics on how denuclearisation could take place or how North Korea’s steps to dismantle its arsenal would be monitored. There are no deadlines mentioned. There is no reference to China, North Korea’s only ally. There has been no word on whether the two will establish formal diplomatic relations. Besides, being unpredictable and impulsive, Trump and Kim must also stare down hardline elements in their respective administrations.
But the four-point declaration disappoints experts who have dismissed it as “very vague”; it doesn’t move forward much from earlier agreements signed in 1993 and 2005. Trump, who was clearly in an ebullient mood after pulling off his presidency’s greatest coup, talked up the agreement like the salesman that he is, and said the talks had been “honest, direct and productive” and had the potential for a new relationship. To critics who said he shouldn’t have met Kim unless he was confident about concrete results, he added, “It’s not a big deal to meet.”
Certainly, Trump and his team were singing a very different tune from the one they had been belting out in the summit run-up. A day before the talks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo firmly declared that any agreement would require a “robust verification” programme. The US administration also emphasised that denuclearisation would have to happen immediately or on a very definite timeline.
Instead, the final agreement talked in the broadest possible terms about a desire “to establish a new United States-Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (US-DPRK) relations in accordance with the desire for peace and prosperity.” Specifically, on denuclearisation, the agreement inconclusively stated, “DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.” By contrast, the US made several sweeping concessions, first among them that Kim got to pose and negotiate with Trump. Significantly, Trump has also said that South Korea and the US would stop holding war games.
As justification for these big concessions, Trump pointed out that there have already been benefits from a gradual rapprochement and that there had been no nuclear or missile tests for the last seven months. That the North Koreans had closed down their missile engine testing sites was also counted as a positive.
For now, the region’s key players appear positive about the summit. South Korea, which brought together the two sides, immediately gave the talks the thumbs up. China’s foreign minister declared that, “China, of course, supports it.” India welcomed the historic summit calling it a positive development. In its reaction, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at the same time hoped that any resolution to the North Korean “peninsula issue” would address New Delhi’s concerns about Pyongyang’s proliferation linkages with India’s neighbourhood, seen as an apparent reference to Pakistan.
By contrast, the Japanese, who have been left on the sidelines, are worried about short-range North Korean missiles that could threaten it. But, while the summit may bring short-term peace, there’s scepticism about how it will play out in the long run. As an expert on Korea declared: “Not a loss, but not the win the President is going to make it out to be. It’s kind of a nothingburger.”
The writer is a retired Senior Professor of International Trade and can be reached at [email protected]