East Asia Forum, with James Amedeo, 17 June, 2018
Since the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948, no acting US president had met with a North Korean leader. Early on the morning of 12 June 2018 in Singapore, all that changed. In the historic meeting, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to ‘establish new US–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity’.
This line from the joint statement Trump and Kim released after the Singapore summit is a small example of the document’s larger theme: ambiguity. The only substantial part of the joint statement is the two leaders’ agreement that dialogue between the United States and the DPRK will continue into the future.
If we compare the Singapore summit joint statement to previous US–DPRK agreements, it is closer in nature to the 2000 Joint Communique than to the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Agreed Framework involved concrete steps to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. It stated that North Korea would switch from using graphite-moderated reactors (which use unenriched uranium as fuel) to using light-water reactors (which use water as fuel).
The Joint Communique and the Singapore summit document, on the other hand, use highly diplomatic language that avoids stipulating concrete steps to denuclearisation. The only specific policy outcomes of the 2000 Communique and the Singapore joint statement are about the recovery and return of US soldiers’ remains from the Korean War. This endeavour requires little effort from the North Koreans while providing a small political victory for the United States.
The main push of the Singapore agreement is North Korea’s continued commitment to complete nuclear disarmament of the Peninsula as agreed in the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. That’s a win, particularly for South Korean President Moon Jae-in who promised this to South Koreans.
But there is little else to commend the document. There is no mention of North Korea’s human rights transgressions, which could become a major stumbling block to passing future DPRK-related policies in the US Congress. There is a hint at establishing diplomatic relations, but it’s not clear whether this is merely a commitment to better relations or a commitment to formal diplomatic relations. Will a peace treaty be on the table? Again, it is not clear.
Even though the joint statement itself is ambiguous, there may be more going on behind the ink. Trump announced after the summit that he will suspend US military exercises with South Korea. He also mentioned that he expects Kim to dismantle his nuclear arsenal ‘very quickly’.
But spoken agreements tend to carry little weight in comparison with written ones. Trump could take back his decision to suspend military exercises at a moment’s notice just as Kim could decide to restart his nuclear program. The important mission in the future is to secure a more conclusive written deal instead of these loose spoken commitments.
The joint statement allocates the responsibility for ‘follow-on negotiations’ to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and ‘a relevant high-level DPRK official’ — a rather oblique reference to North Korea’s diplomatic team.
The main question going forward is: how can Pompeo secure a deal of substance without the North Koreans walking away? In 1994 US diplomat Robert Gallucci, the head of the US delegation that was sent to negotiate the Agreed Framework, faced the same question. His answer was to find out what the Kim Jong-il regime wanted.
Kim Jong-il’s desires and his son’s desires are the same. In his 2018 New Year’s speech, Kim Jong-un acknowledged that the successful development of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program is complete and that it is time to shift to focussing on economic development. Pompeo should use this information to achieve a deal with North Korea. Lifting economic sanctions, providing aid or including North Korea in China’s Belt and Road Initiative are concessions that could fulfil Kim’s economic development desires.
In return, the United States must request the closing of nuclear reactors like the one in Yongbyon. Evidence suggests that the Yongbyon site was operational and producing plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear weapon program as recently as April 2018. The closing of this plant along with others like it will be key to entering a ‘nuclear freeze’, which may be a compromise on denuclearisation that Trump is willing to agree to.
Had somebody said in 2017 that Kim and Trump would someday shake hands they most likely would have been laughed out of the room. US–DPRK relations have come a long way from the use of inflammatory language like ‘dotards’, ‘red buttons’ and ‘rocket men’ — but that does not mean that the hard work is over. There are still major question marks going forward, particularly around the area of North Korea’s human rights record.
While the US–DPRK joint statement from the Singapore meet has little substance, it is significant that Trump and Kim agreed to continue negotiations. Going forward Pompeo’s goal will be to turn this ambiguity into concrete guidelines that can be monitored and followed.