, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

US President Donald Trump and North Korean supremo Kim Jong-un emerged from their summit meeting in Singapore with smiles and an understanding on the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear programme. After nearly five hours of talks, the two leaders released a joint statement that committed both countries to build a new relationship towards peace and prosperity, joint efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang’s promise to work to achieve a complete denuclearisation of the two Koreas, and the repatriation of the remains of prisoners of war from the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. Interestingly, the joint statement also stated that Trump committed to provide a security guarantee to North Korea.

Trump emerged from the meeting stating that it went “better than expected and no one could’ve expected this” though the statement had no trace of the pre-summit US language of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID).” Both sides promised to begin follow-on negotiations between US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Ri Yong-ho at the earliest possible date.

Before the summit, most experts would have been glad if the conference even took place and the promise of a second meeting would have been taken as a great success. Trump’s ‘unique’ style of diplomacy had worried most observers that the Korean peninsula might be heading towards an expensive and catastrophic confrontation. Indeed, it was barely ten months ago that the president had threatened to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against Pyongyang. Seen against that backdrop, the Singapore summit delivered beyond expectations.

Nonetheless, optimism must be tempered and there are several questions the joint statement raises. The first and most obvious is that the joint statement is woefully short on details – there has been no agreement on what denuclearisation would entail, verification regimes, timetables, deadlines, or penalties. Still, the statement might be seen as a preliminary measure before a more concrete treaty is negotiated in much the same way the Joint Plan of Action paved the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran.

It may also be argued that Kim did not promise the United States anything more than he did South Korea in the Panmunjom Declaration that pledged to strive for a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War and bring about the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. Yet Trump conceded the cessation of military exercises with South Korea – apparently without consulting the military or Seoul – and suggested the removal of all US forces from the country. The president thought such activity would be “very provocative” now that negotiations had begun with Pyongyang and that the cancellation of war games would also save “a tremendous amount of money.”

Kim’s promise of denuclearisation is also a big question mark. While it implies the dismantlement of his own nuclear arsenal – which is a notable achievement – it also opens the door to the removal of US nuclear weapons from the peninsula and perhaps even from bases nearby in Guam and Japan. North Korea does not intend to disarm unilaterally as it has learned its lesson from watching how the United States treated Iraq and Libya.

If Washington does talk over the heads of its regional allies in Seoul and Tokyo, both South Korea and Japan may be tempted to seriously consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal of their own. There have long been whispers in both capitals of an independent and reliable nuclear deterrent and these may only get louder if talks between Pyongyang and Washington drag on indefinitely without a North Korean nuclear disarmament.

It must be noted that the arrangement Trump has reached with Kim is far inferior to the agreement Clinton achieved in 1994 or even the progress made by the Six-Party Talks between 2003 and 2009. Yet this reflects not a shortcoming on Trump’s part but the advancements North Korea has made in its nuclear and missile programmes in the intervening years. American myopia in the late 1990s and early 2000s has given Kim Jong-un a better negotiating hand today through no fault of the Trump administration and the concessions Washington can expect will be less or will come at a steeper price, the difference from a quarter century ago echoing the cost of Washington’s folly.

The success of the Singapore summit and any subsequent agreement will ultimately depend upon whether each side delivers on their promises. Both sides have plenty of ammunition to suspect the other of bad faith. Washington, for example, walked out of its agreement with Iran despite the international community’s protestations for no apparent reason; the United States was found wanting also in the case of the Agreed Framework of 1994 that President Bill Clinton had negotiated with Kim Jong-il. The George W Bush administration remained unconvinced of the utility of diplomacy until North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. For its part, Pyongyang has played the role of the madman to perfection with scorching rhetoric and a series of defiant nuclear and missile tests. With so much bad blood between the two countries, it is difficult to ascertain at this juncture how the negotiations and implementation phase will develop.

The only way to confirm whatever nuclear promises North Korea makes would be through an intrusive monitoring and inspection system as the JCPOA had envisaged with Iran. This will be very complicated process in terms of voluntary disclosures and the freedom international inspectors will have to investigate in a controlled country like North Korea will always be suspect. Furthermore, if the International Atomic Energy Agency’s reports do not conform to intelligence estimates, will the international community press for even more intrusive inspections? A first step, experts suggest, is an open skies agreement that will allow the two Koreas to conduct aerial reconnaisance over each other’s territories and monitor from afar.

Some of Trump’s critics have decried the camaraderie shown to Kim – Trump had called Kim a very talented man for taking over the country from his father at just 26. This stands in sharp contrast to the US president’s reaction to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau at the recently concluded G-7 meeting in La Malbaie. North Korea’s human rights record is also brought up to emphasise Trump’s gaucheness.

Pace Trump’s relationship with the leaders of America’s long-time allies, it is worth considering, however, if more would have been achieved by the United States had Trump been boorish to dictators and despots to satisfy the moral itch of a certain segment of commentators.

The key factor to comprehend at this juncture in the US-North Korea talks is what each side wants from the other. Washington’s objectives are clear – the elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. As for North Korea’s aims, observers suggest that most of all, Kim seeks the recognition of the international community and the end to his country’s pariah status. An additional ambition of Pyongyang’s might be to improve the health of North Korea’s economy. Kim’s third aspiration might be the eventual reunification of the Koreas – an idea that carries a powerful cultural resonance on the peninsula despite the drifting apart of the two Koreas since World War II.

Each of these goals would profoundly change the geopolitics of East Asia. First and foremost, it would allow Pyongyang to get out from under China’s thumb. While Beijing has sheltered its tiny eastern neighbour for so long, there are indications that the relationship might not be as strong as it once was. A stronger and more independent Korea, or even just North Korea, might seek friends afar – dare I say Uncle Sam yet? – to balance powers nearby.

It is worth remembering that in their first summit in 2000, Kim Jong-il told his South Korean counterpart Kim Dae-jung that he had no objections to the continued presence of American troops on the peninsula even after reunification – “We are surrounded by big powers – Russia, Japan and China – so the United States must continue to stay for stability and peace in East Asia,” southern Kim remembers northern Kim as saying. South Korea’s present president, Moon Jae-in, seems cautiously ready to midwife this old and seemingly strange desire for better relations with the United States if it still exists – Moon met Kim in a historic visit in April this year and was the one who conveyed Kim’s wish to meet Trump.

Trump’s meeting with Kim holds great potential for shuffling the East Asian geopolitical deck. However, the hurdles are many too – primarily the mistrust built over the past 30 years since the end of the Cold War. The Singapore summit was a first step in a long journey towards reconciliation but as Ronald Reagan advised during the Soviet glasnost and perestroika, trust but verify; for now, the stringent economic sanctions on North Korea will remain.

This post appeared on FirstPost on June 13, 2018.