After much anticipation, the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un finally took place in Singapore on June 12, with saturation coverage in the international media.
North Korea, generally derided as a rogue state, suddenly found its leader to be an international political superstar on par with the US president.
Yesterday’s “Little Rocket Man” is now a “very worthy, very hard negotiator” — even honorable.
Trump’s new-found appreciation of the North Korean leader tends to legitimize Kim’s regime at home and abroad. Not only this, but Trump has “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea, which essentially means that the US would not seek to destabilize the Kim regime.
“We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, plus I think it is very provocative,” Trump said.
He was virtually repeating what Pyongyang has said about joint US-South Korea military exercises, including the terminology of describing them as “war games” to threaten North Korea.
Of course, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, but what does that mean?
The Korean Peninsula has two state entities. Only North Korea has nuclear weapons, but South Korea has the US security cover, which would include its nuclear component, if necessary.
And when Pyongyang talks of its commitment to “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula, it would imply the withdrawal of about 28,000 US troops stationed in the South as a security guarantee against a North Korean attack, and any harm to them from a potential North Korean attack would mean a US counterresponse that might include all elements of its military power.
Now that Trump has indicated that the US would withdraw from periodic joint “war games” (military exercises) with South Korea that are “provocative” to North Korea, this could form the basis of follow-up negotiations over the phased reduction or removal of the North’s nuclear arsenal.
Trump has even indicated that his country might eventually withdraw its troops from South Korea.
Despite such unilateral pronouncements of the US president, there is no road map or time frame for the process of denuclearization. It would appear that Trump is willing to go a fair bit of the way, but his unpredictability is a problem.
At the same time, Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearize is vague and of a general nature. However, Trump seems to be so impressed with Kim that he is even prepared to invite him to the White House at some appropriate time.
No wonder Pyongyang is quite pleased with the way the summit panned out.
According to the Korean Central News Agency, Kim won support from Trump for “the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace.”
“Kim Jong-un clarified the stand that if the US takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]-US relationship, the DPRK too, can continue to take additional goodwill measures of the next stage commensurate with them,” it said.
Of course, Pyongyang is taking some liberty with its presentation, as there is nothing to suggest, based on reporting of the summit, that the US has used such terminology.
What next? There is nothing laid out concretely in the summit declaration on the follow-up.
Although there is a commitment on North Korea’s part to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the US proviso of immediate, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, so much emphasized by Washington before the summit, is conspicuous by its absence.
It is said to have featured in the talks and is understood between the parties.
During his follow-up tour to South Korea, Japan and China, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that denuclearization should be done (substantially) by the end of Trump’s current term.
Trump seems to think that it will be part of a process that might take quite some years; some have even suggested 10 or more years if the process goes ahead. In the meantime, Trump has declared the nuclear threat from North Korea over.
One would very much like to hope so; but with so little to go about how denuclearization would proceed, it might as well turn out to be the usual Trump rhetoric of going from one extreme to another.
In the meantime, his style of conducting diplomacy by tweets seems to be upending the post-World War II international order, with the US’ allies suddenly feeling cast off.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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