The June 12, 2018 Trump-Kim summit on denuclearization efforts on the Korean Peninsula left more lingering questions than it had answers. Considering that the summit was hyped due to its historical nature, it did not live up to the hype and in so many ways than one was an insult to the global efforts of denuclearization. Not only was the Singapore summit a step backwards in efforts to secure a nuclear free North Korea, but it was an illustration of impulsive diplomacy conducted by a US President who is more concerned with theatrics, showmanship and a lack of understanding of how diplomacy works. The “Joint Statement” between Trump and Kim Jong-un grossly ignored Verification and Irreversible protocols that are important components of the Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The agreement consists of four major points:
Nuclear negotiation and diplomacy experts like myself have all asked the same question – Why was the Singapore Summit held? Because the agreement between Trump and Kim was mainly vague and there were non-concrete assurances on timelines and on how Pyongyang eventually planned to reduce its nuclear stockpile if it ever did. The Summit was however, clear that Trump was not ready to negotiate with an authoritarian leader like Kim Jong-un. Instead of adopting a concession-for-concession tactic, Mr. Trump offered more to Kim Jong-un in return for nothing. For this reason, most critics are in agreement that the biggest winner from the Trump-Kim Summit was Kim Jong-un. It is shell-shocking how the negotiations are to proceed forward when in the preliminary stages Mr. Trump has given more to Kim Jong-un. Mr Trump has left the US with not enough bargaining chips but have provided the despotic ruler of North Korea with enough room to outplay the US in any future negotiations.
In an article I wrote title Lessons from the past: The U.S.-South Korea alliance should proceed with caution, I argued that Kim Jong-un would demand concessions from the United States, yet they won’t offer any. Although the statement still remains true, what I did not expect was the United States offering Pyongyang concessions that outweighed North Korea’s vague promises and not specifically demanding an in-depth commitment to the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program – a demand that has been made the pinnacle of negotiating with DPRK by past US administrations. In his efforts to either win Kim Jong-un or illustrate his ignorance, Trump declared that he was also looking forward to removing sanctions imposed on North Korea and ending joint military drills with South Korea that are perceived by North Korea as hostile. Pyongyang’s reaffirmation of, “working toward complete denuclearization” is not enough. The affirmation, that was first made to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in at the Panmunjom Declaration on April 27 2018, slightly agrees to aim to denuclearize but does not offer a certainty that North Korea would actually reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile, stop nuclear enrichment processes and destroy nuclear testing centres in a verifiable manner by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA verification protocol would ensure that North Korea adheres to denuclearization and provide safeguards against potential misuse of the existing nuclear stockpile in North Korea.
Even though, Trump described the Joint Statement as “very comprehensive” the US President failed to separate pageantry and negotiation procedures that ensure a comprehensive deal. A few commentators have went as far as pointing out that the Trump-Kim deal benefited China (a party that was not there at the Singapore Summit) more than the US. China has always wanted the removal of American troops from Asia so that it can assert it dominance in the region. With the Trump-Kim deal, China might be very close to securing its hegemony throughout the whole of Asia.
To illustrate that Trump’s policy had become more aligned with North Korea than past US foreign policy, he agreed with Pyongyang’s view of denuclearization as a lengthy process, noting that “scientifically, I’ve been watching and reading a lot about this, and it does take a long time to pull off complete denuclearization.” Mr Trump fails to comprehend that with any deal that requires a shift in policy like denuclearization efforts they require patience and a lot of procedures to be followed to ensure complete denuclearization in a verifiable manner. In other words, diplomacy takes time, it is not to be hurried due to its delicacy especially when dealing with issues of such significance as nuclear proliferation. The Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) formally started in June 2006, and was officially signed in July 2015, almost 10 years after the negotiations had started. Therefore, diplomacy is never a sprint to the finish line but a marathon that endures for years until a comprehensive sustainable deal is attained.
Diplomacy is always the best alternative in any circumstances but it should be conducted in a manner that does justice to the issue at hand. Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un did not add any value or change perceptions on North Korea’s threat as an illegal nuclear weapons power but it served as a propaganda tool that the despotic ruler of North Korea could use to ascertain his prominence in North Korea as well as on the world stage. Trump legitimized Kim, while getting nothing but a photo-op in return. He had the opportunity to show his negotiating skills that he has been bragging about but he failed drastically. Trump might have started the dialogue but there is still more that needs to be done. Concrete and rigorous diplomacy facilitated by expects would lead to success in the future. If the summit leads to verified, irreversible denuclearization, triumph might be claimed but not before that.
The Trump team, should have gone into the Summit well prepared considering that there hasn’t been a seating US president in the last 30 years who has met with the ruling Kim family. The question that should have guided them was why there has never been a US president who has met with the Kim family directly. An answer to that question would have helped the Trump administration in making sure the unprecedented meeting would not be downgraded to a mere photo-op with no concrete wins. Past US presidents steadfastly refused meet with North Korea for a good reason (such a meeting would give Kim legitimacy, ensure his reign is safe and would give Kim the ability to oppress his people with impunity). The North Korea nuclear threat has not been eliminated, and real substantive talks on the nuclear program have not been held.