Tokyo held its breath when U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un finally met Tuesday in Singapore and discussed the issue of denuclearization. Since then, pundits in Japan have been divided over the true value of the U.S.-North Korea summit. The following are my humble observations on this “historic” political extravaganza.
The skeptics in Tokyo argue that it was Kim who won this diplomatic game. He got both international recognition as the legitimate political leader of North Korea and security guarantees from the president of the United States — without making any additional concessions on the definition and modality of denuclearization.
Trump on the contrary, they claim, only got a “historic” summit meeting, something no previous U.S. presidents had achieved, and basked in the international media spotlight, while failing to convince the North Korean leader to accept the concept of CVID — complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
The sympathizers in Tokyo have a rather different narrative. The young North Korean leader, they believe, has promised the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula including that of North Korea itself. Therefore, the summit was a first positive step toward peace and stability in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Although no details have been worked out for denuclearization, they argue, it would be dealt with “fully and expeditiously” at the ministerial level in the follow-up negotiations. The security environment in Northeast Asia has begun to change and the prospect of war that we feared last year is now rapidly diminishing.
Both views may be true. Yet this is not a debate between right and wrong. Rather, it is between the two truths reflecting the bleak realities surrounding the Korean Peninsula, which are: Now North Korea does have nukes and will not give them up; and the rest of the world has few military options to permanently resolve this issue.
My take is different from both views. The U.S.-North Korea summit, whether you liked it or not, may have been historic in the sense that it might have significantly changed the North Korean nuclear game forever. Yet, it did not address the details of denuclearization — which Tokyo has been most concerned about for years.
By the same token, although the summit and its follow-on meetings may prevent the outbreak of a second Korean war, they may not ultimately convince Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. This means that we are avoiding a war but not denuclearizing North Korea, either. This seems to be where we are at now.
On May 8, I wrote an article in The Japan Times titled “Can you really walk out, Mr. Trump?” In it I stated that there are theoretically four scenarios about the outcome of the U.S.-North Korea summit. Allow me to reproduce here what I wrote then to explain where we are now and where we go from here.
1. A successful but most unlikely scenario — Kim is honest and Trump is insightful: If Kim is determined to dismantle his nuclear arsenal in a short period of time, and if Trump is convinced that Kim will do so, it would be a job well done and Trump could be eligible for the Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately, it did not happen this time.
2. A missed opportunity scenario — Kim is sincere, but Trump miscalculates: Although Kim is ready to give up his nukes, Trump may not trust Kim for many convincing historical reasons. Fortunately, however, it was not the case, either.
3. A return-to-confrontation scenario — Kim cheats again and Trump anticipates it: If Kim is the real heir to his father’s and even his grandfather’s cunningness, he may not have much choice. I thought it was the case on May 24, when Trump signed an official letter to inform Kim of the cancelation of the summit. I was wrong.
Now we found that in the Trump administration, it was Trump himself who was most eager to meet with Kim. Based on the joint statement that Trump and Kim signed Tuesday, it is most likely that this third scenario did not take place and that’s why Trump did not walk out of the room. But he could have done so, couldn’t he?
4. A worst-case scenario — Kim continues to lie and Trump believes him: Kim could be wise and offer his readiness to dismantle his nukes, while requesting that the United States agree to a phased and reciprocal denuclearization of both North and South Korea.
This fourth scenario, unfortunately, might have been the one that took place Tuesday on Sentosa island. Or Trump might have just pretended to have been cheated for the sake of saving the historic first U.S.-North Korea summit. The latter means we are still somewhere between the third and fourth scenarios. I hope I am not wrong.
If that’s where we are, we still have a chance of achieving our original goal of CVID. To get things back on track again, Trump has to listen to his experienced advisers and foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. If Trump is still interested in substance and eager to take advice from them, it’s not too late.
If, on the contrary, Trump is already happy with the historic nature of the summit and the accompanying international media attention, it may be too late. Whether the U.S. president makes the right decisions vis-a-vis North Korea is up to the people around him, especially those on his foreign policy and national security teams.
The first U.S.-North summit could never have failed once the meeting was held because it was doomed to succeed. Trump need not worry, because he already deserves the highest credit for the summit.
If so, Mr. Trump, it’s not too late for you to walk away from the negotiating table, whenever you value the interests of the United States and its allies.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.