CANBERRA – The words “historic” and “unprecedented” to describe the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are literally true. But there were good reasons why previous U.S. administrations had refused multiple requests from North Korean leaders to meet with the president. Against the historical and strategic backdrop, the results of the Kim-Trump summit so far can be divided into the good, the bad and the ugly.
Inverting the order, it is distasteful for the leader of the free world to meet, on equal footing, the leader of one of the most horrific human rights abuser regimes, as documented in chilling detail in AIIA Fellow Justice Michael Kirby’s report for the U.N. Human Rights Council. Known colloquially in diplomatic circles as shaking hands with the devil in order to make progress on the bigger picture, there is no shortage of precedent for this transactional calculation.
But the praise showered on the “very talented” Kim by Trump at the press conference afterwards, along with the claim that “one of the great winners” from the summit were the prisoners in North Korea’s gulags, was nauseating. While Trump conceded that the human rights situation in North Korea was “rough,” he relativized it by noting: “It’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.” The claim of having developed “a very special bond” with a murderous dictator came immediately after the gratuitous insults hurled at America’s closest allies at the acrimonious Group of Seven summit in Canada.
During the press conference following the Singapore Declaration — which, by the way, is neither a deal nor a treaty — Trump gave away still more. Worse, he bought into the narrative peddled by North Korea and China on the causes of the crisis: joint U.S.-South Korea exercises are provocations, the “war games” will end and Trump strongly looks forward to bringing home all 32,000 U.S. soldiers from South Korea. Trump may well have shaken the foundations of the U.S. alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific. Japan in particular will be left wondering where to go next for national security.
The “bad” began with the agreement to hold a summit without first requiring some concrete actions on denuclearization. This handed Kim the invaluable prize of global legitimacy as the head of a nuclear-armed state who had succeeded in meeting the U.S. president as an equal because he got the bomb. Forget the fact they were acquired illegally.
All the major concessions to Kim were front-loaded while concessions by North Korea will come downstream. All we have now are promises that have been made several times before and serially broken: A summit to begin instead of ending the denuclearization process; efforts to organize reciprocal visits by Kim and Trump to each other; North Korea’s formulation of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (meaning also an end to the U.S. nuclear umbrella for Seoul) rather than the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (the famous CVID so beloved of wonks) of North Korea; establishment of relations with the U.S.; regime security; an end to provocative military exercises, etc.
A deal with Iran with concrete action outcomes — that included stringent international verification and enforcement — has been mothballed because Trump’s bete noire Barack Obama signed it. But a vague promise from North Korea to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” is a wonderful deal?
Not surprisingly, signs of disagreement have already cropped up. Speaking at a press conference in Seoul in the presence of South Korea’s and Japan’s foreign ministers on 14 June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that North Korea will not see any sanctions lifted until it has demonstrated “complete denuclearization.” A day earlier, Pompeo had said that it was hoped to achieve North Korean “major disarmament” by 2020 during Trump’s first term in office. Conversely, the U.S. will resume joint military exercises with South Korea if the talks stall.
The unexpected big winner from the summit is China: Its road map for Korean peace has been effectively endorsed. North Korea is retained as a strategic buffer. China holds pole position to be the key player in the search for a peace regime in a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. A wedge is being driven among U.S. Pacific allies to match trans-Atlantic divisions. Beijing, which accounts for over 80 percent of North Korea’s trade, is unlikely to revert to strong sanctions. Only it can offer fallback guarantees to the Kim regime and family should the U.S. breach the Singapore Declaration and return to military threats. An end to U.S.-South Korea “war games” will lower the U.S.’ military profile and in turn raise China’s in the Asia-Pacific.
The good lies in the start of a diplomatic process. Sanctions by themselves were a dead end and military strikes are too costly to contemplate. The only hope for a resolution is through dialogue and negotiation that will require mutual accommodation of wants that are merely desirable, in order to achieve all sides’ bottom lines. Because the nuclear file is the most critical, it makes sense to quarantine this from other troubling aspects of North Korea’s behavior, much as was done with Iran.
The upside of a summit to kick-start the political process is the two leaders have invested their personal prestige and authority and can instruct officials to implement their vision, overcoming bureaucratic and institutional resistance. Should the pugnacious U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton seek to sabotage the deal, for example, Trump can simply fire him: That will hardly be news.
Compared to the real fears of a nuclear showdown when Kim and Trump escalated their bellicose rhetoric last year, the series of inter-Korean, Kim-Xi Jinping and U.S.-North Korean summits have already produced a remarkable relaxation of tensions. As professor Moon Chung-in, special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, notes, the commitment-for-commitment was the easy part; now comes the hard part of matching action-for-action.
Ramesh Thakur, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general, is a professor emeritus in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. This article was originally published in Australian Outlook.