13 June 2018
The encounter between US president Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on Tuesday started with a grand handshake and ended with a detail-free agreement, deflating hopes of a historic breakthrough.
The summit was difficult to process, perhaps because it was not like other dramatic encounters between adversaries – such as those between US president Richard Nixon and China’s Mao Zedong, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin, or South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk – in which the meeting signified an advance.
The twelve-second handshake between Trump and Kim was fascinating to watch, but its meaning remains unclear. Trump, rather than pursue a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear program and cap it off with a meeting, chose to start with a summit that may come to nothing.
Worryingly, Trump’s performance in Singapore suggests that he has little understanding of how to extract concessions from North Korea or to deter it from further aggression. At the summit, he made a surprising announcement that he will suspend military exercises with South Korea on the Peninsula; according to Trump, in return Kim promised to destroy a nuclear site and to send back remains of American soldiers.
“We expected it [the summit] would be a flop, but it’s floppier than anything we expected,” said Andrei Lankov, of Kookmin University in Seoul and the director of the NK News website. “The Americans could have extracted serious concessions, but it was not done. The North Koreans will be emboldened and the US got nothing.”
Such disappointment has been common to observers who have watched Pyongyang for decades. Part of the reason for scepticism is that North Korea’s nuclear program is so entrenched in its national identity, at least under the Kim dynasty.
This is a country that is desperately poor and engages in counterfeiting, cyber theft and drug trafficking to boost its economy. Yet its nuclear program is, according to the few observers who have had access, impressive in its technical proficiency.
Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University scientist who was invited to inspect North Korean facilities between 2004 and 2010, has described being shown a centrifuge plant in November 2010 which confirmed that North Korea could enrich uranium. “I could not believe what I was seeing,” he told CBS News earlier this year. “Essentially 2000 centrifuges lined up, look[ing] beautiful, modern. We had no idea they had this many centrifuges, and that modern.”
This program, which is carried out in various locations across the country, would take years to dismantle. Any such undoing would depend on the close cooperation of the nation’s nuclear scientists, and would need to be tightly monitored and verified, given North Korea’s success in hiding its program over the past two decades.
The achievements of this nuclear program have emboldened Kim and helped him to win a meeting with a US president; it is a central part of his regime that he will not easily give up, if at all. In the statement that emerged from the summit, Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”. But there was no detail about timetables or outside monitoring – and Kim has long tended to regard “denuclearisation” as a process that would encompass a US withdrawal from the Peninsula.
Trump believes that he and Kim created a “special bond” at the summit and that further meetings will provide the detail of plans for denuclearisation. But there are downsides to holding a summit with North Korea, which is why other US presidents have not tried it. Trump has embraced and given international legitimacy to a leader who commands a regime that – according to a United Nations inquiry headed by former High Court justice Michael Kirby – achieves its ends through murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape and forced abortions.
Trump’s approach also risks edging the stand-off on the Korean Peninsula closer to war. The summit gives a sense that the ultimate diplomatic option has been attempted. Trump’s direct involvement in it may increase the pressure on him to respond militarily should this latest effort at resolving the crisis fail, like others before it.
But the summit, despite the lack of a breakthrough, has also brought some hope. It has changed the dynamic of a conflict that has lasted more than sixty years and has left North Korea increasingly isolated, determined to complete its missile program.
While diplomatic engagements in 1994 and 2005 failed, the situation has changed since. Kim Jong-un appears to be less fearful of the outside world than his father, Kim Jong-il. A market economy has gradually been developing inside North Korea, and exposure to information and culture from abroad has increased (albeit partly due to smuggling operations). Kim may also be influenced by toughened global sanctions, or by his talks with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has hosted him twice in the past six months.
So there is reason to be optimistic. But there is also good reason to believe that this summit may prove to be a missed opportunity of historic proportions.