US President Donald Trump and Chairman of the DPRK State Affairs Commission Kim Jong Un held a summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018, which is, without doubt, a historic event, if only because the two heads of state never met before and relations between Washington and Pyongyang were on the brink of an armed conflict involving the use of nuclear missiles.
It looks like the threat of a US-North Korean nuclear conflict has been removed. President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, while Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Under their Singapore declaration, 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 and to join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a relevant high-level DPRK official have been instructed to hold follow-on negotiations.
At the same time, many analysts note that the Trump-Kim Singapore statement is just a collection of general phrases. The only specific commitment it contains is to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.
The explanation is simple. It was not easy to organize the summit. In its approach to talks with North Korea, the US originally proceeded from the assumption that Kim was forced to negotiate by sanctions and pressure, and therefore the denuclearization that is at the core of the current crisis should be understood as Pyongyang’s immediate, complete and irreversible renunciation of nuclear weapons. The US media and academia discussed how to strip the DPRK of its nukes and bring them to the US along with North Korean nuclear physicists and missile designers, who could be hired by the US government.
But nothing of the kind happened. For Pyongyang, its nuclear program is a security shield and Kim Jong Un had no intention of giving it up for a song in the form of a handshake and lunch with President Trump. Eventually therefore, things fell into shape to suit the way North Korea viewed the situation, for after all Kim Jong Un is talking about the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula rather than unilateral denuclearization of the North. It is this formula that has been included in the joint statement of the Singapore summit. Among other things, this implies that the US should refrain from deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea and sending nuclear-carrying US ships to South Korean ports or strategic bombers into Korean airspace. The North Korean leader also noted that his country would give up its nuclear weapons, first, only in the context of complete and universal nuclear disarmament, and, second, only under the condition that North Korea is given firm security guarantees.
The United States, for its part, failed to provide any specific security guarantees to Pyongyang, including, what is most important, the signing of a non-aggression treaty. Washington also insists on preserving its current sanctions against North Korea until the total elimination of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
It is only natural that this US scenario does not suit the DPRK. Pyongyang favors an “action-for-action” staggered approach to nuclear détente, which means that each North Korean step must be reciprocated with the lifting of US sanctions and the expansion of trade and economic assistance.
It seems that currently the main US fears are linked not so much to North Korea possessing nuclear weapons as to the likelihood that it might develop the capability of reaching US territory. This is indicated by the fact that there was a toughening in Trump’s rhetoric last year as a consequence of reports about the successful testing of North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles. So it might be useful to separate the North Korea’s nuclear program from its missile program at the next stage of the talks. The DPRK’s nuclear status is enshrined in its Constitution and for now is not subject to debate. At the same time, putting a freeze on the missile development program and providing guarantees of non-proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies could well be negotiable. Kim Jong Un could safely declare a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, in fact, one is already in place, because there has been no testing since last November. Pyongyang could also stop developing IBMs, suspend production of nuclear materials, and open its nuclear facilities to international inspections. In response, Washington could officially recognize the DPRK, establish diplomatic relations with it, exchange embassies, restrict its military activities near its borders, reduce and ultimately lift its sanctions, and extend economic and energy aid to the North. Based on its contacts with Pyongyang, Seoul believes that the North Koreans also hope that Washington will give the green light to their admission to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The sequence and timeframes for these steps could be coordinated at additional talks.
The world reaction to the outcome of the Singapore summit varies, with some speaking about a “breakthrough” in dealing with a festering international problem and others being not so sure. The initial US reaction was rather critical. The Washington Post, for one, wrote that the bilateral summit was nothing more than a fine picture that Kim needed to bolster up his legitimacy and Trump required to get back his confidence. The New York Times believed that Trump was outmaneuvered in Singapore. It remains to be seen what Congress has to say, particularly its neocons.
Donald Trump himself spoke about the great progress that had been achieved at the meeting, adding that it was “better than anybody could have expected.” Kim Jong Un, in turn, described the summit as a “prelude to peace”. One can hardly disagree with these assessments. The main positive outcome is that the leaders of two states that tottered on the brink of war have found the courage to start a sober and well-meaning dialogue. Kim Jong Un, who until recently was presented in the US media as a “baby rocketman” and an incarnation of world evil, proved, to quote Trump, a “great personality and very smart. Good combination. He’s a worthy negotiator, he’s negotiating on behalf of his people”, something that provided all state leaders with a good example of how to “absorb punches” when under pressure from Washington.
An important step forward has been taken but the question is what will happen next. The United States has repeatedly shown its inability to honor its commitments under signed international treaties. Washington has withdrawn from the ABM Treaty. Not so long ago, it announced that it was withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program. The fate of the Iran deal has a direct bearing on North Korea. The agreement implies that Iran discontinues its military nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The same is now on offer to North Korea. But can anyone persuade the DPRK to accept this option if it can be withdrawn at any moment? The issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program applies to a far wider range of countries than just the two Koreas and the United States.
Russia and China have jointly developed a roadmap to settle the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. This proposal was put forward by the foreign ministries of both countries on July 4, 2017, i.e., six months before Kim Jong Un’s New Year address, which paved the way to Pyongyang’s dialogues with Seoul and Washington. It has undoubtedly influenced the current positive developments in Korean affairs.Today, North-East Asia is the only region in the world lacking a multilateral mechanism for discussing issues of mutual interest or for settling conflicts between regional stakeholders. The case in point therefore is not the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula alone. The task in hand is to build a reliable comprehensive security system in North-East Asia, which would include on an equal footing all local stakeholders – Russia, China, the DPRK, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Mongolia – as well as the United States, which is not geographically part of the region but has substantial security interests there. Russia is objectively interested in the US presence in Asia and in security cooperation with that country but obviously not within the framework of a US-centric system.