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Opinion Trump-Kim summit: Powerful on symbolism, weak on substance

James Trottier is a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a former career diplomat who directed the political/economic programs at the Canadian embassies in South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.

The setting in Singapore was worthy of an encounter between rival monarchs as U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shook hands at the most improbable of summits.

For Mr. Kim, being greeted as a peer by the leader of a superpower added immeasurably to his legitimacy and status.

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For Mr. Trump it was an opportunity to do what his predecessors had declined to do, despite the fact that he agreed to the meeting impulsively, with nothing in return.

Apart from the spectacle and the personal rapport that may or may not outlast the summit (keeping in mind that Mr. Trump’s relationships can unravel at the speed of a tweet), what was achieved?

First, the present chemistry between the two leaders is preferable to their previous exchange of threats. To the extent that they can continue this rapprochement, this is positive. However it also runs the risk of negative consequences should the relationship sour.

For the moment, at least, a resumption of last year’s threats seems unlikely, to the great relief of South Korea and the world.

Second, there will be indefinite, open-ended discussions about denuclearization. It is most unlikely that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal, the weapons that got it a seat at the table in the first place. However, such discussions are positive as they may contribute to confidence-building and lessen the likelihood of these weapons ever being used.

Third, while sanctions are not mentioned in the joint statement of the leaders, easing of these is a key North Korean objective and there is already movement on this front with calls from China and Russia. Without China, sanctions will not be effective.

Fourth, despite Mr. Trump’s hyping of the joint statement as “comprehensive,” it was such thin gruel that observers first wondered if there was another more substantive document that had not yet been released. In international peace and security issues, it is best to underpromise and overdeliver. This summit seems to have done the opposite.

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In the statement, the two leaders committed to establish a new relationship between their countries and join their efforts “to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” referring presumably to work toward a peace treaty, a long-time North Korean objective which successive U.S. administrations have resisted in the absence of a complete, verifiable and irreversible North Korean commitment to denuclearization.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have signed a "comprehensive" document following talks on ways to end a nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula Reuters

In the most anticipated portion of the statement, North Korea reaffirmed the April 27 declaration between North and South Korea and committed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Mr. Trump also committed to providing unspecified security guarantees to North Korea.

The implementation of these pledges is left to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a yet to be named senior North Korean official.

There are yardsticks to measure this portion of the joint statement. First, for much of the time since the summit was announced, the United States claimed that the only acceptable outcome of the meeting was complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.

By this measure, the statement does not meet the U.S. objective. Neither verification nor timelines are mentioned and the commitment is to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula rather than North Korea specifically. Indeed, Mr. Kim simply reiterates what he said in his April 2018 summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, itself reflecting less than North Korea had previously pledged. Assurance by Mr. Trump at his news conference that verification would be carried out by “having a lot of people there” is hardly convincing.

The second yardstick is commitments made by North Korea in bilateral meetings with the U.S. going back to 1994. In this regard, the joint statement also comes up short. At best, the pledge echoes past commitments made by North Korea about denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, and at worst it reflects a step back because in 2005 North Korea actually made a commitment to denuclearization of North Korea specifically.

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The final yardstick is the Iran agreement, recently rejected by Mr. Trump. This 150-page agreement has detailed verification and implementation procedures and timelines. There is simply no comparison between the rigorous detail of the Iran agreement and the joint statement in Singapore.

There is also no North Korean commitment to continue its moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. China had long proposed a freeze of these in exchange for suspension of joint U.S./South Korea military exercises. Reflecting a possible implicit acceptance of this “freeze for freeze” proposal, Mr. Trump said he would end what he referred to as “provocative” “war games.” Apart from adopting the North Korean description of these military exercises, there is no indication that Mr. Trump had consulted South Korea before making this announcement.

Nor is there a reference in the joint statement to chemical and biological weapons or human rights. Mr. Trump claimed that he raised human rights at the summit and characterized North Korea as in “a rough situation” but then added, “it’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.” He also made the improbable claim that the summit would not have happened without the case of American student Otto Warmbier, the young man who died after being imprisoned in North Korea.

Ironically, it was easier for Mr. Trump to reach an agreement with North Korea than with his G7 colleagues in Quebec. He was willing to accept significant compromises, including on his priority of denuclearization, for the sake of an agreement.

It remains to be seen how long he will continue to be satisfied with the joint statement in the face of criticism regarding its shortcomings or of failure by North Korea to live up to his expectations.

James Trottier was accredited to North Korea and led four Canadian diplomatic delegations to North Korea in 2015 and 2016 and also served as diplomatic liaison to U.S./UN Forces in South Korea. trottierjames@hotmail.com

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