It would be hard to miss the fact that there has been a summit in Singapore this week between US and North Korean leaders. The meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was an event heavy on spectacle and short on substance but historic nonetheless.
Historic, simply because this was the first time that the leaders of the two countries have sat down together to resolve the longstanding dispute between North Korea and the US with major ramifications for the Korean peninsula. High on the list was denuclearisation, a goal that Washington and Pyongyang view differently: for the US it means North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, for North Korea it means the withdrawal of nuclear weapons and their threat of use from the peninsula entirely. The summit had built on a rapprochement between North and South Korea, who are technically still at war, and a major charm offensive by the regime of Kim Jong Un. It also came after an exchange of threats and insults between Trump and Kim, a misunderstanding of the meaning of the ‘Libya model’, the cancellation of the talks, then a period of engagement and optimism as the talks were put back on.
While both leaders have subsequently announced that the talks were a major success, the outcome was what many had expected. There is not much that can be achieved in a day in international diplomacy, even if there has been some groundwork beforehand, and what we got was a vague account of discussions and the signing of a joint declaration of a commitment to complete denuclearisation, both of which were short on detail. It represents a start to a more lengthy process that will also need to involve South Korea. The contents of the private conversation between the two leaders remains largely unsaid, so it is not possible for us to know what deals, if any, were made, which gives the two men a significant amount of leeway in making grand claims in the future.
There are criticisms of course, and while President Trump may dismiss critics in characteristic style as ‘naysayers’, they are valid concerns. The first is that the leader of a Orwellian regime par excellence has been given equal footing with the President of the United States, which whatever people feel about Trump, is arguably the world’s most important liberal democracy. North Korea’s human rights record is abysmal to say the least, and human rights were unlikely to have been high on the summit agenda. By putting Kim in such a high profile meeting with Trump that could have been undertaken by subordinates risks legitimising a brutal regime notorious for its gulags. A second is that we have been here before in the yo-yoing of US-North Korea relations, with previous commitments to denuclearise broken and dreams of peace on the Korean peninsula left in tatters. The regime in the north actually did the opposite of what was agreed and developed the ability to launch long-range nuclear missiles, making it a genuine nuclear power. President Trump has also demonstrated distain for the agreements that have preceded his summit and had arrived while the fallout from the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal continues. Good diplomacy involves building on what has been done before, not simply discarding or dismissing it out of hand and relying on leverage to create a new deal from the wreckage.
From the summit itself we have only really gained in terms of spectacle, with the world watching on the leaders got to grandstand and the gains remain to be seen. The goal of denuclearisation remains distant but the summit itself must be acknowledged as a potential stepping stone as part of a longer process. Where this will lead us is uncertain and requires statesmanship, commitment and the cooperation of a regime that acts with impunity at home and has been described as the world’s worst offender of human rights. Much will depend on how much the North is willing to give up its weapons and what the US has to offer that will address the regime’s economic problems. A recent announcement by the Trump administration that there will be no sanctions relief without a complete denuclearisation by the Kim regime indicates that the tough talking approach characteristic of Trump’s presidency will continue.
For more information regarding this week’s blog see:
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator