The Singapore Summit: Shaping a Way Ahead on the Korean Peninsula

By Richard Weitz

Although the results of the summit are still unclear given the vague joint statement and lack of North Korean comments, on the surface it looks like President Trump made major concessions now in order to achieve hoped-for US gains later.

The mere fact that the presidential summit occurred—the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader–represents a gain for Kim, who can act as an equal with the president of the United States.

The North Korean leader also did not overtly commit to complete, verifiable, irreversible, and permanent disarmament.

Even the timing of the first step—the DPRK’s declaration of its current nuclear assets and activities—is unstated.

As expected, the US does not appear to have pressed North Korea on human rights, cybercrimes, and other bad behavior. These issues may be raised, if not resolved, in later DPRK-US, and eventually multilateral, discussions.

More surprising, rather than declare a relaxation of some US sanctions, Trump announced that he would suspend ROK-US military exercises.

Their cessation would be welcome in Moscow and Beijing but will generate alarm among some US allies since the reason Trump gave for their halt—namely, to save money–could apply to any US foreign military drill.

Yes, military exercises cost money, but they also serve an important deterrence, reassurance, and readiness function.

The extent to which the White House informed allies in advance of this possible suspension also is unclear, though the BBC says that the Chinese apparently knew about the cessation in advance.

Fortunately, as President Trump himself noted, this concession is easy to reverse if North Korea resumes its provocations.

The presumption is that North Korea will continue to freeze its nuclear and long-range missile tests or risk a resumption of these drills, more US sanctions, and perhaps US direct action.

US sanctions relief may occur as Pyongyang takes actually steps towards eliminating these capabilities.

Unfortunately, China and Russia will likely exploit the joint DPRK-US statement and other declarations of intent to justify relaxing sanctions on the DPRK, with little likelihood that they will return any time soon.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson already offered this position before the summit.

That said, Trump’s emphasis on how the supposedly growing trust between the US and DPRK governments will ensure verification seems misplaced—with effective means of verification, such as onsite inspection, you don’t need trust, which is likely unattainable between these two countries given their lengthy history of conflict.

It is puzzling, however, why many of these concessions—the end of US-South Korean exercises, further North Korean disarmament measures, and other issues raised in Trump’s news conference—were not mentioned in the joint statement. It might be a few more days until we know the details of what actually occurred.

This is the pattern followed by previous denuclearization agreements with North Korea. In the past, the signatories would agree to sweeping declarations of intent, but then the deals would collapse at the level of implementation, with both sides accusing the other of bad faith.

One recalls then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s remarks about Russian reform efforts: “We wanted to do better, but it turned out as always” (Хотели как лучше, а получилось как всегда).

In all likelihood, the only enduring solution to the North Korean challenge is regime change, reunification, and the transformation of both Koreas into something that looks like a larger version of contemporary South Korea.

Of course, conditions are somewhat different this time than with previous failed efforts at reconciliation—there is a new leader in Pyongyang, the sanctions imposed on North Korea are greater than ever, and the Chinese and Russians are overtly anxious at Trump’s cultivated reputation for unpredictability and shooting from the hip.