A First Historic Step… But to Where?

There were many outcomes of the historic first Trump-Kim Singapore summit on June 12; overall, it is clear that most of the hard diplomatic work remains ahead, yet the summit was helpful in establishing a top-down process that still could lead to real breakthroughs for peace on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization.

Productive results included:

  • A high-level working relationship between US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was established, and there were no dramatic disruptions or problems that could have led to an immediate crisis.
  • The agreed statement includes language on the key issues that the parties will now begin to work out in detail in the weeks and months ahead, including normalization of relations, a process leading to a peace treaty, and denuclearization.
  • Stringent economic sanctions remain in place until North Korea takes clear, specific steps toward denuclearization.
  • The issues of Japanese abductees and human rights were reportedly raised in the discussions.

 However, key missing or counterproductive outcomes of the summit included the following:

  • Trump’s announced cancellation of US-ROK military exercises, which he termed “provocative,” could lead to the end of the US-ROK alliance.  If military forces do not exercise, they cannot accomplish their primary mission, which currently is to defend the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) from the threat of a North Korean military attack.  China and North Korea have been pursuing the removal of US forces from South Korea for decades; more recently, last year China, Russia, and North Korea had proposed a “freeze for freeze” (freezing North Korean nuclear and missile testing in exchange for no more US-ROK military exercises), a proposal that the Trump administration had rejected outright.  Now, Trump has apparently changed his mind. Fortunately, this measure was not incorporated into the joint statement.
  • There was no further elucidation, or even a basic definition, of “denuclearization.”  Most observers expected much more on this major issue, which will have to be addressed on a priority basis in the coming days.
  • There were no further details on any of the other major issues that need to be negotiated —for example, the steps toward a peace treaty, next steps on normalization of US-North Korea relations, etc.
  • Kim achieved an enormous propaganda victory, being seen on the world stage with the president of the United States, with the flags of the two nations intertwined on camera. He gave up little in exchange for this major accomplishment.
  • There was no language in the agreed statement on Japanese abductees or human rights.  Even without the two nations agreeing to new provisions on these issues, basic diplomatic work would have suggested the following type of language could have been included:
  • “The two leaders discussed the issues of Japanese abductees and human rights in North Korea.  They agreed to continue diplomatic exchanges about these matters.”

Finally, while there were no details on denuclearization in the agreed statement, a former senior administration official made clear what the US definition and policy position will be going forward:

  • Disarmament of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles
  • Disabling of nuclear-related infrastructure
  • Dismantlement of facilities so that they cannot be rebuilt
  • Long-term verification.

As a next step, if US negotiators can convince North Korea to agree to and begin to implement such measures, then this summit will go down in history as a major diplomatic achievement.  If denuclearization is not taken up speedily and specifically in this fashion, then the Singapore summit will be remembered as one among many US-North Korean high-level meetings that led nowhere.

Barry Pavel is senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @BarryPavel.

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Image: US President Donald J. Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12. (Kevin Lim/The Straits Times via Reuters)