The much-anticipated summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has come and gone. While the Singapore meeting was indeed historic, the aftermath may seem a little anticlimactic to some. This is partly due to the hype and self-aggrandizement that Trump put on in the weeks before the summit, which even he had to walk back eventually.
Rather than the grand deal to stave off nuclear war Trump promised, the two leaders exchanged pleasantries, talked briefly, and signed an agreement low on details and high on ambiguity, promising to continue the conversation. In short, it was a glorified photo op. But symbolism matters and this photo op was significant for both Trump and Kim.
Both leaders will now go home and sell the meeting as a win they themselves have accomplished. For Trump, the talks were an opportunity to portray himself as a dealmaker, to stick it to all those liberals who complained that threatening nuclear war was a bad negotiating move. For Kim, having the leader of the world’s most powerful country sit at a table with him and call him “talented” and a “very smart” leader is the ultimate vindication of his destabilizing regional threats, an acknowledgment of his personal authority, and unquestionable proof that North Korea is now a (probably nuclear armed) superpower.
But will things actually get resolved now that the cameras are not rolling?
Trump thinks so. The world hopes so. But, unfortunately, the smart money would say it doesn’t appear so. At least not from what we’ve seen so far.
How Did We Get Here? The Lesser-Told Story
Most current narratives focus on the interchange of insults and threats Kim and Trump lobbed at each other, followed by an abrupt shift in tone from the North Koreans. By the time the Olympics came around, it seemed North Koreans were interested in talking. After talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and a secret meeting with then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Kim was ready for a meeting with Trump. Such narratives often exclude two important aspects that have changed North Korean calculations over the last two years: the actions of the Obama administration and China.
Obama is often criticized for not doing enough on North Korea. That is only partly true – he did as much as previous presidents. Obama continued a concentrated sanctions regime aimed at bringing the Kim regime to the table by crippling them economically. This policy has historically worked only to keep North Koreans isolated and poor. It has brought North Korean officials to the table several times, only to see them violate deals as soon as their economy improved.
However, Obama went a step further. After a series of tests in 2016, the US and South Korea announced a plan to deploy a missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD in South Korean territory.
This irked China, North Korea’s only notable ally, and main commercial partner, accounting for 90% of their trade. China had previously been fairly neutral on Korean nuclearization. However, the introduction of THAAD changed Chinese calculations. They worried that THAAD radars could be used to spy on Chinese military activity.
China began putting more pressure on the Kim regime to cooperate in the form of sanctions, which drew rebukes from the Kim regime. In September of 2017, four months after the deployment of THAAD, North Korea launched its biggest test yet. Xi Jinping had had enough. He signed on to the UN’s harshest sanctions yet, affecting major North Koreans industries and also capping fuel imports.
It is this round of sanctions and Chinese rebuking that may have changed Kim’s calculus more so than Trumpian rhetoric. After all, Kim took his first foreign trip to Beijing before engaging in any talks, ostensibly to get Xi’s blessing. It is true that missile tests continued and tensions escalated after last September. But this could have been a ploy by Kim to increase his leverage. If so, it certainly worked.
What Does the Agreement Say?
Full text of the joint statement between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pic.twitter.com/29Qx0m0moV
— Robbie Gramer (@RobbieGramer) June 12, 2018
The agreement signed by Trump and Kim on Tuesday is just over a page long. The main takeaway from it is the fact that it is language that North Korea has agreed to before, notably in a previous round of talks in 1992. Some experts even believe this latest agreement is actually weaker than previous ones.
Trump was quick to call it “very comprehensive” in the subsequent press conference, but it appears to be anything but. Here are a few key parts worth noting:
President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
This is the crux of the agreement, and two phrases in this sentence are key. The first is “security guarantees to the DPRK” that Trump committed to provide. What this entails is purposely vague (more on that later.) But it does entail that the US take steps to signal to the North that it does not seek to attack it. In the press conference, Trump abruptly announced a step towards doing so, calling for an end to joint military exercises in South Korea. This seems to have taken both South Koreans and the Pentagon by surprise, with the former scrambling to get assurances from the Trump administration.
The second phrase is “commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This phrase makes an important distinction, one that means different things for both sides. For the US, this has always meant the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea. This would entail a rigorous and intrusive monitoring scheme that would go farther than the Iran nuclear deal Trump ripped up last month. North Korea will certainly view this as a violation of their sovereignty, and would not trust the US to keep its promises even if they agreed (more on this later as well.)
For North Korea, meanwhile, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula means the removal of any nuclear threat in the region, including missile defense systems, missiles and submarines in the region with nuclear capabilities, or even disarmament by the relevant nuclear nations. This, also, is a non-starter for the US and its allies. At the least, South Korea and Japan will want concrete security guarantees from the US as part of any future framework agreement, to say nothing of the ludicrous notion that the US will itself give up nukes at Kim’s behest. Kim knows all of this and will use it as a justification for inaction on denuclearization. Based on their excited agreement, this all seems lost on the Trump administration.
Heading back home from Singapore after a truly amazing visit. Great progress was made on the denuclearization of North Korea. Hostages are back home, will be getting the remains of our great heroes back to their families, no missiles shot, no research happening, sites closing…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2018
In 2005, North Korea agreed—in writing—to “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and to abandon “all” its nukes “at an early date”. So when Sec Pompeo says don’t worry about what isn’t in writing…I do. The Singapore declaration is a huge *regression* from 2005 pic.twitter.com/51VvUHNAKc
— Vipin Narang (@NarangVipin) June 13, 2018
1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new US-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
The inclusion of the word “prosperity” in theory opens the door for the possibility of the easing of sanctions in the future, though Trump has said the sanctions regime will continue for now.
3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
This was the declaration Kim signed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April. It calls for both sides “to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities” towards a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” What those roles and responsibilities are is not defined, as is the meaning of North Korea “working toward” denuclearization. In effect, this means that there is currently nothing binding North Koreans to make good on their pledges. They are currently held to about the same degree of scrutiny in their denuclearization efforts as one is to a new workout plan.
Other aspects of the agreement called for the recovery and return of American remains from of those missing in action or held as prisoners of war from the Korean War, and continuing talks between the two sides “at the earliest possible date.” When that will be, like most else in the agreement, is not clear.
Bottom-line: Trump made specific commitments to end military exercises with #SouthKorea & eventually withdraw US forces from peninsula. #NorthKorea made NO specific commitments on timing or verification of denuclearization, also did not give accounting of its nuclear arsenal.
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) June 12, 2018
So Who Actually “Won?”
The pundit hot takes after the summit fell into the familiar simplistic tropes. Trump supporters will have you believe the Nobel Peace Prize is waiting in the Oval Office for his return. They will extol the toughness he exuded and how it cowed the North Koreans into negotiating. Their more sane counterparts on the right argue that Trump has created a more pragmatic approach to negotiations, establishing relations between the two leaders in an effort to keep the conversation going. This new relationship, they say, will commit both parties to staying the course and working out the details of a comprehensive deal.
On the other hand, the non-Fox News crowd correctly points out that Kim received quite a haul from the summit without giving much back in return. Indeed, Kim was able to take away a propaganda bonanza the summit provides as a legitimization of North Korea as a nuclear force, the stopping of military exercises in South Korea, the lack of concrete denuclearization demands, and the lack of human rights stipulations. Not bad in exchange for the destruction of a few sites, some of which may not have been functional anyway.
Let’s get one thing clear, however: when two unstable leaders who were threatening nuclear war only months before are able to sit at the same table, everyone wins. Questions such as whether or not Trump brought North Korea to the negotiating table, or if Kim is playing Trump for a fool, are all subjects of debate that will get their answer down the line. However, we can all agree that we are in a better place than we were just six months ago, and that an opportunity for a solution to make the world much safer has presented itself.
It is this very opportunity that makes Trump’s approach to this whole issue so maddening…
There were reports of the president’s lack of preparation for the summit and his refusal to take briefings on North Korea. From the looks of the outcome, it showed. Indeed, Trump may have brought the US to the most difficult and substantive part of the negotiations by dealing away most of its hand.
Trump seems to believe that the heavy lifting was bringing Kim to the table, as it was never done by previous presidents. In fact, the reason other presidents have not done so is because they did not want to give North Korea the legitimacy it craves without any commitments from them to cease their nuclearization or their human rights violations. Trump, however, cares little for legitimizing human rights violators and autocrats. He just wanted a quick win. Let there be no mistake: the two sides are no closer to a full-fledged nuclear agreement than they were before. North Korea still sees nuclear weapons as the key to their survival.
The rush to meet Kim leaves the US hemmed into an agreement that provides no guarantees Kim will do what he promises. Proponents will argue this was just a first step, but its one that has been made before. In fact, North Korea has reneged on similar agreements at least a half-dozen times since 1985, only to go back to business as usual when it suited them.
There is currently nothing that prevents Kim from doing so now. His country can just go back to making nukes if, for example, Kim deems the US presence in the region too burdensome. He will not budge on denuclearization barring a complete military capitulation by the US and its allies because he does not have to.
Trump seems to believe that this will not happen solely because of the flattery and assurances he has received from the dictator, and because of the reports of the North’s destruction of nuclear test sites, most recently a missile engine site shortly before the summit. What he fails to realize is that North Korea has made these types of concessions before. In 2008, they blew up a cooling tower as part of a negotiations process, only to ratchet activity back up when talks went nowhere. They may well be able to do the same with the recently destroyed sites, especially given that there have been no inspections to see how unusable they really are. Hence why the “verification” part of the CVID policy is so important.
In theory, an actual framework for progress could be made going forward between the two sides. In practice, this will be next to impossible for two reasons. The first is that North Korea has no incentive to trust the US. Having seen dictators like Hussein and Gaddafi killed after they gave up their nuclear programs, Kim knows better than to give up the very thing that brought him to the global stage in the first place. Trump’s reneging on the Iran deal and national security advisor Jonh Bolton’s talk of a “Libya model” would prohibit anyone from trusting the US, even if they had intentions to denuclearize.
The second is that by signing this agreement, Trump watered down the longstanding multilateral sanctions campaign that put pressure on North Korea. China, in particular, is already hinting at easing its sanctions. This is all the assurances they need to do so. China fears a potential refugee crisis on their border should the North Korean economy fall due to sanctions, and will look to end them as soon as convenient. This does not mean they will not want the talks to continue. They will pressure North Korea to, at the least, put the dismantling of THAAD on the table as a part of the “security guarantees” promised by the US. Any military withdrawal would also be a welcome bonus for China, who have been greatly expanding their military influence in the region.
The easing of sanctions gives North Korea the lifeline they need to carry on with business as usual, and will make it much harder for the US to get them to continue denuclearization. Any attempt by the US to call out Kim for potential violations will be met with rebuke by China and Russia (who have cozied up to Kim and have been sneaking fuel imports into North Korea) as a violation of Tuesday’s agreement.
In short, Trump may have given the North Koreans a lot more leeway and hampered American diplomatic efforts all so he could get his photo op as a dealmaker on the world stage. His attitude after the summit showed how little he cares about the outcome:
“I may be wrong, I mean I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey I was wrong. I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”#TrumpKimMeeting pic.twitter.com/oZePoU8hJr
— Greg Hogben (@MyDaughtersArmy) June 12, 2018
“I may be wrong” is not what one wants to hear when discussing nuclear weapons. It does not show the level of commitment that would be necessary for progress to make the region safer, a process that the US and its allies will now have to do with one hand tied behind their back due to this agreement. While tensions are at their lowest now, it seems likely that North Korea will take its place as the newest member of the nuclear arms club, and a ruthless dictator will keep his nuclear button.
I hope I’m wrong.