By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist
Photo by: Getty Images
After the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12, pundits were quick to jump in to assess who “won” the summit. Stepping away from the sensationalism surrounding the “competition” between the two leaders, the summit did not significantly alter the situation on the peninsula. US-DPRK relations remain fragile, China continues to play a role in managing North Korean affairs, and US allies’ worries endure about US commitments to the region.
The product of the summit was the joint statement between the U.S. and DPRK, which stressed the “new type” of US-North Korean relations, in which they will aim to establish “long-term stable peace mechanisms” and emphasize North Korea’s “commitment to work towards a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”[i] Yet this statement did not provide any concrete steps on how or when dismantlement would take place, nor did it introduce any new discourse to the usual North Korean rhetoric on negotiations with the United States.
Since the first US-DPRK Agreed Framework in 1994, the US, UN, and international community have offered concessions and aid in exchange for the dismantlement or halting of DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs. After the Framework broke down, the same cycle continued through all six rounds of the Six Party Talks in the following years. The DPRK accepted the aid or sanctions relief, then pulled out once it felt stable again and continued to expand its WMD arsenal and proliferate its nuclear and ballistic missile technology.[ii] Without any commitments to specific removal procedures, its unlikely North Korea intends anything different this time around.
Moreover, the DPRK continues to stress the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula rather than its own denuclearization. The DPRK continues to call for US withdrawal from South Korea and for the US to break its defense commitments to the South by removing it from its nuclear guarantees as a condition for scaling back the DPRK WMD program. This is not a new statement of peace, but recycled language from the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Based on this rhetoric, Kim is signaling that the DPRK is not changing course, but instead re-emphasizing that DPRK’s supposed willingness to denuclearize will depend on US reciprocity.
From Xi’s meeting with Kim prior to the summit to Kim’s arrival in Singapore on an Air China jumbo jet, China continues to play a crucial role on all issues involving the peninsula as the closest “friend” to North Korea.[iii] Following the summit, the Chinese government released a statement urging both parties to “adhere to denuclearization of the peninsula”, solve problems through “dialogue and consultations”, and pledged its support to helping the DPRK and the United States in “implementing consensus.”[iv] China’s language on denuclearization of the peninsula parallels that of the DPRK and emphasizes China’s commitment to reciprocal denuclearization, while removing the US military threat that lurks near its Northeastern border, rather than working with the United States to pressure North Korea to scale back its WMD program.
Chinese media also heralded the “established trust” between the U.S. and North Korea for future negotiations, but called on the US to let the DPRK “taste the sweetness of abandoning the nuclear program” by lifting sanctions on the DPRK. [v] This rhetoric serves two purposes: prima facie to garner support for North Korea’s economy, and to shield itself from the threat of secondary sanctions against Chinese firms conducting business with North Korea.[vi] This response from China reveals that China will continue precariously balancing its relationship with North Korea and its relationship with the United States, with little to no additional commitments to join the international community’s efforts to isolate North Korea economically.
U.S. and its Asian Allies
The last angle to assess the summit is through the United States’ commitment to its Asian allies. Prior to the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Abe met with Trump to avoid a “Japan passing” at the summit, in which the U.S. would overlook Japan’s interest and input if it were to strike a deal with North Korea. Japan’s insecurity about its relationship with the United States falls under the backdrop of the Trump administration’s “unpredictability” and “question[s regarding] the value of alliances.”[vii] This summit could have been an opportunity for the United States to strengthen its relationship with its allies by seeking their input prior to the negotiations and reassuring them that the United States would not make any concessions to reduce its security commitments in the region. But by meeting Kim on “equal footing” and freezing combined military exercises with US Asian allies, Trump has further exacerbated US allies’ insecurity about US commitments in the region.[viii]
In short, the United States was not able to secure any guarantees of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID), and North Korea did not receive any sanctions relief or reduction of the United States’ military presence in Asia. While the U.S. and South Korea promised to suspend major combined exercises in the region, they will continue with their routine military training and, if North Korea does not take any self-imposed measures to denuclearize, the two countries would restart the exercises.[ix] China was not able to secure any promises to protect itself from the threat of secondary sanctions, and US allies remain unsure about US commitments in the region.
As such, there were no clear “winners” of the summit, and the summit has not heralded a “new relationship” between the US and the DPRK. Many of the issues related to the security crisis on the Korean peninsula — the WMD program, China’s continued support of the DPRK, and the shaky relationship between the U.S. and its allies — remain. The United States should be wary of declaring a new relationship of peace or thinking that the risk of conflict has been mitigated via the small bit of trust built over this round of negotiations. The United States and North Korea have been here before, and without concrete commitments from North Korea or US-led dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, the country will remain a clear and persistent threat to the United States and its allies in the region.
[i] “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” White House, June 12, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-president-donald-j-trump-united-states-america-chairman-kim-jong-un-democratic-peoples-republic-korea-singapore-summit/.
[ii] “U.S.-DPRK Negotiations and North Korean Provocations,” CSIS Beyond Parallel, October 2, 2017, https://beyondparallel.csis.org/dprk-provocations-and-us-negotiations/.
[iii] Jane Perlez, “How did Kim Jong-un get to Singapore? With some help from China,” New York Times, June 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/11/world/asia/trump-kim-summit-plane.html.
[iv] “外交部就朝美领导人会晤发表声明,” Xinhua News, June 12, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2018-06/12/c_1122975526.htm.
[v] “侠客岛:特朗普金正恩发表联合声明 这是最新解读,” Sina News, June 12, 2018, http://news.sina.com.cn/w/2018-06-12/doc-ihcwpcmp6927607.shtml.
[vi] Yun Sun, “The US-DPRK Summit: Assessing Chinese Anxieties,” 38 North, March 27, 2018, https://www.38north.org/2018/03/ysun032718/.
[vii] Zack Cooper, “Abe is back to talk to Trump – with a list of Japan’s concerns about North Korea,” The Washington Post, June 6, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/06/abe-is-back-to-talk-to-trump-with-a-list-of-japans-concerns-about-north-korea/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7775c12c0699
[viii] Ramesh Thakur, “The Trump-Kim summit: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Japan Times, June 17, 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2018/06/17/commentary/world-commentary/kim-trump-summit-good-bad-ugly/#.Wye1cVVKhhE.
[ix] “US and South Korea to announce suspension of ‘large scale’ military drill,” The Guardian, June 17, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/17/us-south-korea-north-korea-large-scale-military-drills-trump