Editorials

More style than substance in Singapore

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their much anticipated summit Tuesday in Singapore. It was a historic meeting, if by “historic” we mean that it was the first meeting of a sitting president of the United States and a North Korean leader. Apart from that very particular definition, it was exceptionally ordinary, yielding a document that offered nothing new. By every measure the encounter was notable more for what it did not do, rather than what it did.

Weeks of advance negotiations, and six hours of talks, interrupted by meals, photo ops and walks, produced a short agreement in which the two leaders promised to establish new U.S.-North Korea relations and “a lasting and robust peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula. They reaffirmed the Panmunjom Declaration signed in April by Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in which North Korea committed to work toward complete denuclearization of the peninsula. Trump and Kim also committed to recovering POW/MIA remains. The document notes that Trump agreed to provide unspecified security guarantees to North Korea and Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

The personal commitment of the two men to build a new relationship and Kim’s pledge to denuclearize is valuable, as is the tone and outlook. But the document itself goes no further than previous agreements with North Korea; in some cases, there is even less than in the past.

There is no mention of “verifiable” denuclearization, a notable omission when it was precisely the issue of verification that proved insurmountable despite its inclusion in the September 2005 joint statement in the six-party talks. There was no statement about how to end the Korean War, which officially continues to this day. Optimistic observers believe that ongoing talks will fill in those details, and may already have.

When asked during his solo news conference after the meeting, Trump said he had not mentioned human rights during the discussions, but he did say that he had honored his promise to Japan and pressed the issue of the Japanese abductees. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said later that his government, with strong support from the U.S. president, is determined to resolve the issue by dealing directly with North Korea.

Trump also revealed that he had promised to discontinue joint military exercises with South Korea, a longtime irritant to Pyongyang. Remarkably, he called them “war games” and “provocative” — North Korea’s language — and “tremendously expensive,” concluding that they were “inappropriate” as the U.S. and North Korea created a new relationship. The South Korean government was blindsided and said it would “try to understand what President Trump said.” Only a week ago, South Korea’s defense minister said that U.S. military activities in South Korea were “a separate issue from North Korea’s nuclear issue.” The U.S. Defense Department was also playing catch up: A spokesperson said that it has no new guidance on this issue. From Washington, officials reported that readiness training and exchanges will continue. In Tokyo, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera expressed concern over a possible discontinuation of the drills, saying that they play important roles for security in East Asia.

The concessions were not one-sided. Trump claimed Kim had told him that North Korea would destroy a major missile engine testing site, an agreement reached after the document was signed, and which Trump called a “big thing.”

In fact, the biggest thing from this meeting is the opportunity for Kim to stand next to the U.S. president, a meeting that his father and grandfather had been denied. Just months ago, Kim was an international pariah, threatening the world with nuclear war, accused of ordering the assassination of his half brother and presiding over a gulag state. He had not ventured beyond his country’s borders since taking power. Now, Kim has in short succession met the president of China (twice), the leader of South Korea (twice) and the U.S. president. The prime minister of Japan and president of Russia are in the queue. His newfound respectability has helped fracture the coalition that imposed economic sanctions on his country. China is already asking the United Nations Security Council to ease restrictions on the North; media reports indicate that trade at the border is already on the increase.

To accomplish that transformation, Kim only had to tone down his language, halt nuclear and missile tests that he claimed were already complete, and shut down a nuclear testing facility that was reportedly unusable. Trump conceded that North Korea’s denuclearization program is only in its early stages — a notable statement from an administration that derided previous deals for their naivete and had said that it would put nothing on the table until Pyongyang committed to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization — but added that “once you start the process it means it’s pretty much over.” History would suggest otherwise.

Still, Trump considered the meeting “very, very good,” that it went “better than anybody could imagine,” and that the two countries would “solve the big problem.” He expects many more meetings with Kim and would “absolutely” invite Kim to the White House. For his part, Kim said he was ready to leave the past behind. That sounds promising — until one looks closely at history and sees the trail of broken promises that has led to this moment.