Trump and Kim: The Summit of Summits or Just Another Failed Start?

Well it happened. The widely anticipated Singapore Summit of June 12th 2018 between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un actually took place. After the tense week of ‘will they, wont they` following the controversy of the ‘Libya model` of denuclearisation between North Korea and the US, exploration of which can be found in the previous article Will They? Won’t They? The Kim-Trump Courtship in International Relations, many wondered if the summit would even take place, let alone whether it would achieve what was envisaged.

With a few weeks now having passed since Summit and the dust having settled, it’s a good opportunity to look at the Summit and question what it achieved and what it indicates about the future relationship between North Korea and the US under Kim and Trump respectively.

The Statement

The content of the statement outlined the two crucial elements that underscored any attempt to alter the hostile relationship between the US and North Korea namely denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and guarantees regarding North Korea current and future security (Financial Times, 12th June 2018). It also recognised the need for ‘mutual confidence building` to overcome historic US-North Korean enmity (Financial Times, 12th June 2018). Arguably this historic enmity contained engrained ‘enemy images` and ‘bad-faith` thinking by both sides in which both North Korea and the US believed that the ‘another state has shown by its actions that it has hostile intent` against which the only answer is the development of ‘countervailing military capacities` i.e nuclear weapons or indeed a military intervention and that each’s actions and behaviour is interpreted by through the ‘enemy image` lens (Wheeler, 2018, pp. 10-11).

Of course beyond this the statement however demonstrated the embodiment of a North Korean diplomacy victory at the United States expense. Eberstadt states ‘Whether Washington recognizes it yet or not, the encounter was a victory for Pyongyang — and a big one.` (Eberstadt, June 21st, 2018).

In my opinion the joint statement between Trump and Kim, though useful in recognising the need to address issues such as their historic enmity, fell short of the content which many had expected to see. It offered very little about how Trump and Kim to deal with the causes of contemporary and historic crisis between the US and North Korea, namely North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the threat this posed, and continues to pose, to the security of South Korea, Japan and indeed the US. In short it was a lot of words with very little substance.

Peace at a Price

One of the many personal competencies that Trump has emphasised again and again since taking office is that he is a deal-marker and in regards to resolving US-North Korea antagonism and addressing denuclearisation, Trump was characteristically humble ‘I may make the greatest deal for the world` (Griffiths, 11th March 2018).

Was the outcome of the Trump-Kim Summit then the fulfilment of Trump’s aspirations for the ‘greatest deal`? The simple answer: no, not by a long shot!

A central foreign policy imperative for North Korea is the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under its rule and though survival may seem the current issue for the North Korean regime, its desire to remove the South Korean state in order to reunify the Korean Peninsula remains (Eberstadt, June 21st 2018). North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability thus not only provides a key for maintaining its survival against the US but also provides a way to threaten the US and can become a bargaining chip for undermining if not breaking the US-South Korean military alliance. The US is after all the longest standing guarantor of South Korea’s security and thus breaking the alliance between the US and South Korea is crucial for a future reunification of the Korean Peninsula, particularly through conventional warfare (Eberstadt, June 21st 2018).

Though there was no clean break between the US and South Korea, the Kim-Trump summit did show the potential for this to be unravelled. The US accepted the idea of a denuclearised Korean Peninsula. Though this is understood (from the US perspective) to mean the denuclearisation of North Korea, from the North Korean perspective this includes the denuclearisation of South Korea. As South Korea neither has nuclear weapons nor allows them to be placed on its territory, it is clear that from the North Korean’s perspective, it desires the separation of South Korea from its nuclear-ally, the US which would involve cutting military ties and removing US troops from South Korea (Eberstadt, June 21st, 2018). To the concern of South Korea, this is something that Donald Trump is perceivable open to, having asked the US military to examine the possibility of reducing the US military presence, currently at 23,500 troops, due to the financial burden this placed on the US which Trump desired South Korea to carry more of (Hurst, May 4th, 2018: The Guardian, May 4th 2018).

Indeed, at the summit, Trump agreed to halt, with consultation, the joint US and South Korea military-readiness exercises that acted as war games for the two countries against a North Korean assault (Eberstadt, May 4th 2018). Furthermore, the joint statement, in terms of denuclearisation of North Korea, set out no means of verification of DPRK’s nuclear and missile inventory, its defence infrastructure, its sales and services of such weapons to interested third-parties which have included Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas (Eberstadt, June 21st 2018).

Trump’s decision to halt joint US-South Korea exercises, in my opinion, demonstrates the disregard that the US President has for the genuine security needs of South Korea in countering the real threat posed by North Korea, both in conventional and nuclear capabilities, and his complete lack of understanding of the nature of the conflict between South and North Korea in which the reunification of the Korean Peninsula plays a crucial role. Regardless of the weaponry that North Korea poses, it is clear that it desires to reunify the peninsula under its own regime, which inherently threatens the very existence of the South Korean state in any form (Eberstadt, June 21st 2018). The nature of the military exercises may indeed play a role in North Korea’s insecurity, yet they also play a role in maintaining South Korea’s sense of its own security. A compromise or alteration could have been found by discussing the issue with South Korea, but Trump chose not to do this, and effectively demonstrated to the North Koreans that the nature of the relationship between the US and South Korea was open to renegotiation and influence by the North, which does not bode well for the future.

Trump thus fell short of ‘the greatest` deal. Indeed, it has been highlighted that in the language of the joint statement, Trump effectively committed North Korea to ‘even less than any of its previous (flagrantly violated) nuclear agreements` including the 1991 and 1992 agreements with South Korea, its 1994 Agreed Framework and the 2005 Six-Party Talks (Eberstadt, June 21st 2018).

Success? 

Arguably, the Trump-Kim Summit has been successful in so far as it has provided the opening for further summits between the two state leaders. It appears that there has at least been the establishment of a positive and personal chemistry between Trump and Kim, which if Wheeler and Holmes are correct, may have enabled both leaders to recognise that ‘the only security between their two countries was mutual security` and has at least, for the time being enabled  sustained de-escalation (Wheeler and Holmes, March 13th 2018).

However, the context in which this next summit, potentially in New York City, is being held is one in which there has yet to be evidence that North Korea has begun decreasing its stockpiles and halting production with the potential issue being that North Korea is continuing to try and ‘deceive` the US and to continue its traditional behaviour of delaying negotiations to continue its weapons programs, a risk that National Security Advisor John Bolton recognised (Moore, July 2nd, 2018). The second summit would thus serve as ‘a carrot to get Kim’s government to crank up the process of denuclearization` (Moore, July 2nd 2018).

Given that this outcome was considered unlikely at the Singapore summit, its seems even less likely now as a result of the first summit in which the North Koreans have effectively gained concessions including the benefit of legitimacy and no commitments on its nuclear weapons programmes without having to make any concessions itself (Eberstadt, May 4th, 2018).

In my opinion, having agreed to the Singapore Summit and thus legitimised the North Korea regime and recognised its own role in North Korea’ insecurities and fears regarding its own survival through the joint military exercises, Trump could have used these concessions, in coordination with the positive and personal chemistry, building on the ‘madman` imagery he had built up over the months leading to the summit, to have pressed the North Korea on denuclearisation in such away as to ensure either substantial concessions by North Korea against which their future behaviour could be judged by the international community or that North Korea walked away from the Summit looking as if it was the one responsible for the failure and with the US in a position to pursue a harder line with North Korea having explored diplomacy. Trump’s love of social media could have added this extensively. Alas it was not to be and we are left wondering how the US will deal with North Korea in future and whether the failure to get a good deal let alone a great deal will effect the US’s ability to deal with Iran regarding its own nuclear weapons.

Article by David Wilcox

Bibliography 

Eberstadt, Nicholas, National Review, (June 21st 2018), ‘Kim Wins in Singapore` available at: https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2018/07/09/kim-jong-un-singapore-summit-north-korea-wins/ (Accessed on 2nd July 2018).

Griffiths, Brent, Politico, (March 11th 2018) ‘Trump on North Korea: ‘I may make greatest deal for the word` available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/trump-on-north-korea-i-may-make-greatest-deal-for-the-world/ (Accessed on 19th June 2018).

Hurst Daniel, The Times (May 4th 2018), ‘Trump ‘wants to cut troops in South Korea“ available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/trump-wants-to-cut-troops-in-south-korea-877rsr5df (Accessed on 6th July 2018).

Moore, Mark, The New York Post, (July 2nd 2018), ‘The next Trump-Kim summit could be in New York City, available at: https://nypost.com/2018/07/02/the-next-trump-kim-summit-could-be-in-new-york-city/ (Accessed on 6th July 2018)

The Financial Times (June 12th, 2018) ‘Trump-Kim summit: full text of the statement`,https://www.ft.com/content/cd5991b6-6e0b-11e8-92d3-6c13e5c92914 (Accessed on 19th June 2018)

The Guardian (May 4th 2018), ‘Trump tells Pentagon to sketch out South Korea troop cuts – reports` available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/04/trump-tells-pentagon-to-sketch-out-south-korea-troop-cuts (Accessed on 6th July 2018).

Wheeler, Nicholas J, (2018), Trusting Enemies: Interpersonal Relationships in International Conflict, (Oxford University Press: Oxford).

Wheeler, Nicholas J. and Holmes, Marcus, The Conversation (March 13th 2018), ‘Lessons for Trump-Kim summit from Reagan and Gorbachev: trust and reassurance before denuclearisation`, available at: https://theconversation.com/lessons-for-trump-kim-summit-from-reagan-and-gorbachev-trust-and-reassurance-before-denuclearisation-93250 (Accessed on 14th May 2018).

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