While most of the Western hemisphere laments about the “anemia” or “insubstantiality” of the Summit between the US and North Korean leaders, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, in Singapore on 12 June, we should take a more sober view and start by considering the situation from our own vantage points.
We will then be able to gauge the Summit for what it is: a symbolic (and media) event that could pave the way toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, after more than 60 years of conflict and hatred.
This long period of turmoil culminated last year in the two countries’ leaders trading insults and nuclear threats, pushing regional security to the brink of unprecedented peril with the prospect of a new Korean war. But in January and to everyone’s surprise, Mr. Kim launched a “peace initiative” that introduced new political dynamics into the region. He was quickly relayed by a hyper-active South Korean diplomacy that took the lead in pushing forward dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. The Trump-Kim Summit made the event on 12 June, but diplomacy has still to convey it to history.
True, the 12 June Singapore Statement brings nothing new to what has been proclaimed for years, by both Washington and Pyongyang. It is even more vague and restrained than previous landmark agreements, such as the 1994 Agreed Framework (which set forth a full roadmap to denuclearization), or the 2005 Joint Statement that clearly put forward commitments from the Parties (as “The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs”). The two sides commit “to the building of a lasting and robust peace process”, the US to the provision of “security guarantees to the DPRK” and North Korea to “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. The latter has been a North Korean mantra for years and the Singapore text does not provide any further specifics or any implementation details. In sum, the Statement neither provides a timetable for denuclearization, nor a roadmap for a peace regime leading to full normalization and peace treaty.
Those who expected a clear commitment from Mr. Kim to CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization) were quick to express their disappointment. Indeed, the US State Secretary and chief negotiator Mike Pompeo was the strongest proponent of the CVID mantra, exemplifying by his last minute change of mind the lack of consistency of the US diplomacy. But, if the past offers any lesson, the North Korean leadership has never accepted – at least publically - the notion of CVID, as it has never agreed to give up its core security asset, at least in the absence of clear security guarantees from the US. It would then be naive to believe that Mr. Kim would have changed course in Singapore to the point of “surrender” to Mr. Trump, as a result of his strategic decision to boost the economic development of North Korea rather than his nuclear program.
The same is true for Mr. Trump. He could hardly – at least publically – have presented a catalogue of security guarantees to Pyongyang, such as a withdrawal of some military personnel or elements of a peace treaty, in the absence of North Korean commitment to CVID. Still, the US President eventually chose to announce the cancellation of large scale military drills, a substantial gesture in response to a constant North Korean demand, but only after the publication of the Singapore Statement (and without preliminary consultations).
That is the risk implied by a hasty top-down diplomatic process, likely decided by the two leaders upon domestic and personal considerations. The elements constitutive of a global deal cannot have been agreed upon in advance (as opposed to the course of a normal diplomatic process where a summit eventually marks the end of the game). Thus, the Parties can hardly state more than general commitments. The downside of this approach, besides the fact it is counterintuitive, is that it invites speculations and expectations on concrete results, whereas the conditions are still to be met. Unsurprisingly, the Parties in Singapore had nothing but to resort to vague narratives rather than risking bold announcements. But the credibility of these commitments renewed without added substance was bound to be low.
Besides the political dimension of the process, scientists with experience in denuclearization recognize its extreme technical complexity. Siegfried Hecker, one of the most renowned nuclear scientists, recently published a Stanford University report asserting that it would take at least 10 years for the denuclearization of North Korea, notwithstanding the degree of distrust between the two Parties that will further complicate the matter. He went on to declare that immediate CVID along a Libyan model, as promoted by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, “is tantamount to a North Korean surrender scenario”, an “unimaginable” option for Mr. Kim. Interestingly, Mr. Trump recently hinted at the possibility of a step by step, year’s long, peace and denuclearization process, in a realist departure from his preliminary request of “rapid denuclearization”.
For the regional actors, the Summit has various implications. Pyongyang has good reasons to be satisfied, since the event assured global recognition of the DPRK’s nuclear status as well as international legitimacy and respect to Mr. Kim, two attributes that neither his father Kim Jong Il nor his grandfather Kim Il Sung had ever enjoyed. For its part, China sees, with relief, the ugly prospect of conflict over the Korean Peninsula kept at bay, at least for the time being; it can also appreciate the prospect of having a renewed status quo over the Peninsula in the context of lengthy negotiations, while the pressure on sanctions will likely diminish.
Seoul is also relieved by the outcomes of the Summit and the opportunity to see what it calls a “solid ground” for further dialogue towards denuclearization and peace. But it also understands the difficulty of the task ahead, in particular when it comes to pursuing its catalytic role to keep the US and North Korea at the negotiation table and avoiding a gloomy breakdown. But Tokyo, which has for a long time followed a hardline stance, may feel less secure by the uncertainty of the US posture in the region, as illustrated by the announcement by Mr. Trump of the cancellation of the US military drills in South Korea and previous statements questioning the US presence in South Korea and Japan. The fact that the issue of Japanese abductees may have been addressed is a meager relief to Prime Minister Abe.
Emphatically, the South Korean President Moon, who is the behind the scene architect of the Summit, called it a “historic event that brings the world’s last Cold War to an end”. More modestly, he also recognized that it represents a necessary and essential measure of trust building between the two leaders and countries. Indeed, Messrs. Trump and Kim have engaged into a dialogue that we would be foolish to snob without giving it the chance to prosper. The Singapore Summit may not as of itself make history - only the future will decide.
For a peaceful future to materialize, the Singapore commitments and others privately exchanged between both sides will have to be underpinned by a solid diplomatic process and firmly supported by all regional actors. Furthermore, they will have to be rapidly complemented by concrete preliminary measures. Some of them have already been implemented, such as the freeze of nuclear and missile testing; dismantlement of nuclear test site; release of detainees; establishment of communication lines and ad hoc dialogues. Other promises, such as the cancellation of large scale US military drills and the acceptance of step by step approach of the process will have to be confirmed.
Beyond these confidence building measures, much more has still to be achieved for the denuclearization and peace process to seriously take off. Furthermore, patience and flexibility will be a most needed ingredient, especially from the part of negotiators who will have to put aside hardline posturing and learn the art of compromise. Bilateral negotiations are due to resume in a matter of days, with no end-schedule. Beyond all hurdles, we must give them a chance to be successful.