From Eisenhower to Obama, multiple presidents have tried and failed to secure a summit with a North Korean counterpart, until now. On 12th June, the 72-year-old former reality television star shook hands with the 34-year-old dictator who has ordered executions and tortured and imprisoned thousands of citizens.
This was no ordinary summit meeting.
This was a historic encounter between President Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, set to change the trajectory of the U.S.-North Korea relationship from confrontation to cooperation. This meeting has bought time to address North Korea’s nuclear threat and reduced the risk of short-term military conflict. Yet the four points of the joint statement signed by the two leaders underscored the magnitude and difficulty of the work remaining to be done.
After the oscillating stance on holding a summit, to finding a venue and finally bringing two of the world's most volatile leaders to the table, all on such a short notice, there are no words for this encounter, save for unprecedented. Not only is this the first meeting between a US president and a North Korean leader, it comes after a year of hostile rhetoric between the two incumbent leaders. A summit is usually the end of a long diplomatic process, rather than the beginning of one. Rarely has the world witnessed a meeting of this magnitude with such high stakes and great uncertainty over the long-term outcome.
President Trump can perhaps persuade Kim Jong-un to become his country’s Mikhail Gorbachev and take the first step towards de-escalation. Kim has the capacity, single-handedly, to decide the future of North Korea. As China’s Communist leaders prove, Kim Jong-un could remain in power indefinitely. If he ushers in freedom and growth, he could stay in command as lives brighten and economic liberty advances. While pressuring the North on its violations of human rights should be an element of the pressure campaign against it; the summit was focused on averting another Hiroshima or Nagasaki, leaving human rights violations to be addressed another day.
From the get-go, it was always going to be difficult to get some specific outcome from this summit. The advisors to the two leaders were working up until the last minute even as they were heading up to the island to hammer out a joint statement. This was evident from the fact that the two countries were very far apart in their definition of denuclearization. North Korea’s definition of denuclearization, as laid out in numerous previous talks with U.S. officials, envisions a far-reaching U.S strategic retreat, including the removal of the American defense umbrella from both South Korea and Japan. The declaration signed at the end of the security summit provided a sort of vague guarantee for the north but we don't quite know what that means. Similarly, in the media briefing, President Trump talked about stopping the military exercises or war games conducted between the US and South Korea a couple times a year in South Korean waters. As expected, the joint statement did not directly address North Korea’s missile development, chemical, and biological weapons programs, or human rights violations. The symbolism of the meeting, however, ensures that the maximum pressure campaign has peaked and that in practice, China and South Korea will push for relaxation of economic pressure on North Korea. On the economic front, there was yet another vague promise of prosperity and investments from South Korea and Japan in exchange for the vaguely defined Denuclearization.
The North has always sought regional security in exchange for any concessions on its part; therefore it’s not clear what else the US can offer going forward except sanctions relief. South Korea will push to start doing business with the North and China will have even less incentive to cajole the North Korean regime.
For Donald Trump, it was a chance to claim his place in history, as the first sitting American president to meet a North Korean leader. For Kim Jong-un, it was North Korea’s legitimization on the international stage. The June 12 summit seems to have ended with an outcome satisfying to both leaders. However, the Singapore summit was, without question, a triumph for the North Korean regime which succeeded in achieving a major concession, the suspension of U.S. military exercises with South Korea, and withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country— a concession that apparently took the South Korean government and the U.S. military by surprise.
Kim Jong-un does not appear to have reciprocated U.S concessions. Although North Korea pledged to destroy a missile engine test site, the timeline and scope are still unclear. In this respect, the United States appears to have given more than expected; the buttering up of Kim would be a little more understandable if he had made major concessions at the summit. The meeting was initially billed as the moment when Kim would perhaps commit to clear, unmistakable benchmarks toward denuclearization. Instead, all we got were vague assurances at best. President Trump should refrain from offering Kim Jong-un further unilateral concessions as Pyongyang may financially extort the United States to claim credit for solving the North Korean "nuclear crisis".
While the declaration that emerged from the meeting did not substantively advance efforts to denuclearize North Korea, the symbolism of the meeting was enormous. The document signed by the two leaders for the first time envisioned a normal relationship between the two nations and reiterated Kim Jong-un’s commitment to complete denuclearization. It also authorized a process of follow-on negotiations to be led by the Secretary of State and a North Korean counterpart. The United States should be seeking a full declaration of the regime’s arsenal and nuclear facilities, as a start; without it, demolitions of test sites are meaningless.
Who will monitor nuclear disarmament? What does this mean for US strategic partnerships? How long is the peace going to hold up? Who will win the Nobel Peace prize? Nobody knows. Donald Trump gave himself wiggle room by stating that he wouldn't admit he's wrong and that he'd probably make up some excuse. For now, we have a relationship o a calm footing, unlike last year when the two leaders were engaged in hostile rhetoric, calling for fire and fury and the complete annihilation of their enemy. The chief diplomats and negotiators have a long road ahead, consulting, compromising and hammering out the intricacies of the deal. Let's see how this unfolds.