The USA-DPRK summit in Singapore was bound for success. The mere fact that a sitting US President meets with the North Korean leader is ground-breaking and, indeed, historic. Furthermore, the outcome document, despite not being a major success, neither is a complete disaster. Mr Trump and Mr Kim, thereby ending a period of nuclear brinkmanship, reached an agreement that, in principle, made it possible for both sides to take further confidence-building steps. The ultimate goal, which is still all but out of reach, is the potential future de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
DPRK the main winner
This success, however, is limited. While Mr Trump might have succeeded in initiating a series of talks, which still remains to be seen, it is primarily the North Koreans who have gained. Mr Kim, instead of being continuously called “little rocket man” by the US President, or publicly seen as brutal dictator, he was able to sanitise his public image. Instead of further increasing the tensions between the USA and the DPRK, Mr Kim is now hailed by both Donald Trump, who insists that Mr Kim is “sincere” in de-nuclearising his country, and the North Korean media. Additionally, he reduced the pressure on his regime significantly, the USA are now unlikely to think about regime change in North Korea. Mr Kim has bought himself time, more than anything else, and he might even have stabilised his regime permanently.
The DPRK, therefore, might not have received everything it wanted, such as the lifting of the sanctions, but it received much. The USA, in addition to likely ending the nuclear brinkmanship of the last months, will suspend military exercises with South Korea, one of the main deterrents against North Korean attack. Mr Trump even referred to those as “war games”. In return, the DPRK did not commit to anything concrete. Instead, the outcome agreement is similar to what North Korea has agreed to in the past.
As a matter of fact, the USA had three other alternatives of action. The first was continuing everything as it was. This would have included sanctions and the hope that these sanctions would bring about change in the DPRK’s policies. Secondly, there could have been nuclear war, an option that would clearly not be preferable. The third option, falling short of the nuclear option, was to pursue regime change, something that neither the DPRK or China would have accepted and that would have led to increased instability in East Asia.
De-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula
The question is now whether there is potential for the future de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, a major interest of the USA. Of course, each step toward ultimate de-nuclearisation is always preferable to nuclear proliferation, and, as a consequence, this summit should be seen as success. Nonetheless, there are those who argue that the outcome was a major success for North Korea and the USA did not get anything in return for legitimising a brutal dictator. The DPRK would, in this logic, never agree to de-nuclearisation as nuclear weapons are the regime’s reinsurance. Even more so, as Mr Trump would already have given them what they wanted.
The future potential of the arguably superficial agreement reached in Singapore remains unclear and depends on the DPRK. Indeed, the ball is in Pyongyang now. The ultimate goal of de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula still remains remote and its potential should not be overestimated. If anything, the USA and the DPRK can begin to slowly build confidence and trust but the next steps must come from the regime in Pyongyang. The future steps, whether there will be further confidence-building measures or further tensions, depends on the DPRK’s willingness to continue talks with the USA and to implement serious reforms.
There is, of course, potential for regional instability, too. The USA could begin to, step by step, withdraw from East Asia, thereby opening up political space for Pyongyang and Beijing to determine the regional order. Whether this change of regional order would happen by conflict or by consensus depends on their respective policies and on the policies of South Korea and Japan. At the moment, both Seoul and Tokyo expressed relief that the summit between Mr Trump and Mr Kim could significantly reduce the tensions, despite South Korea being taken aback by the surprise announcement that the USA would suspend its military exercises.
In conclusion, the Trump administration, in their attempt to surpass Barack Obama’s achievements with Iran and Cuba, succeeded in arranging a historic meeting between the US President and North Korea’s leader. This fact is remarkable in its own right and it is comparable to President Obama’s telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. If the only achievement of this summit is to establish a better communications channel between Pyongyang and Washington, this should be seen as a major international success.
In the end, Mr Kim has bought himself and his regime more time. The question is now whether Pyongyang may keep up this momentum and will continue to be able to keep the international community out of what it perceives as internal affairs, or inter-Korean relations. The DPRK’s main goal is to stabilise the regime and this is precisely what Mr Kim achieved, as he reduced the probability of an aggressive US policy significantly.
The ball lies in Pyongyang now. Can the North Koreans maintain this momentum? Will they continue to talk with the USA and, therefore, keep them at bay? Will this reduce US influence in the region, as the USA even agreed to reduce its cooperation with the South Korean navy? How will this affect the regional order? All of this will depend on Mr Kim’s ability to stall the US insisting on de-nuclearisation and to play on time, or his sincerity and willingness to continue with confidence-building measures.
Haas, Benjamin (2018): The most bizarre moments from the Kim-Trump summit, The Guardian
Landler, Mark (2018): The Trump-Kim Summit Was Unprecedented, but the Statement Was Vague, The New York Times