How the so-called “summit of the century” between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un in Singapore on Tuesday will affect US-North Korea relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula in the months, years or even decades to come remains largely unclear.
However, judging by what was vaguely stated in the document signed by Trump and Kim and, especially, what the American president revealed in his solo news conference after the summit, the North Korean leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping, his main backer, have every reason to be pleased.
For the hermit kingdom’s young dynastic ruler, the mere fact that he was able to hold a summit with the US president on an equal footing was already a huge achievement. His grandfather and father craved such an opportunity but never achieved it.
Just a few months ago, Trump called the 30-something dictator the “little rocket man” at the United Nations. But during and after their first encounter, the US president respectfully addressed him as “Chairman Kim” and regarded him as a “very talented” man.
What’s more, Kim didn’t have to make huge real concessions to achieve all of this.
The focal issue of the encounter was about the rogue state’s nuclear disarmament. More precisely, from the Trump administration’s perspective, its main purpose was to push Pyongyang toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID).
Kim only reaffirmed his blank commitment “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” that he had already vaguely agreed with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their meeting in April.
Moreover, from Pyongyang’s perspective – and it’s now clear that Washington also adheres to the latter’s position – denuclearization is not purely a unilateral process. It also requires “progressive and synchronous measures” from Washington and Seoul.
One of these “progressive and synchronous measures” was revealed by Trump in his post-summit press conference, during which he announced that he would end the United States’ annual joint military exercises with South Korea.
Asked about the “security assurances” he “committed to provide to the DPRK,” or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he stated in the joint communiqué, Trump said: “We will be stopping the war games, which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should.”
In his view, in addition to “saving a tremendous amount of money,” the military exercises were “very provocative.”
North Korea has long demanded an end to what it calls “the war games” and “provocative actions,” while, for the US and South Korea, such military exercises are defensive in nature and an integral part of their alliance’s routine annual training program.
Thus Trump’s usage of Pyongyang’s exact language to describe them without doubt puzzles many among the US and South Korean military and political circles.
His mere decision to suspend them is already a big concession to Pyongyang.
Judging by the immediate reaction of US Forces Korea (USFK) and the South Korean government, Trump made such a huge concession – on his own – during his talks with the North Korean leader, without consulting the Pentagon or Seoul.
USFK was quoted by Yonhap, South Korea’s official news agency, a few hours after Trump’s conference as saying it had received “no updated guidance” related to the regular exercises.
Moon’s office released a statement saying “we need to find out the precise meaning or intentions of President Trump’s remarks,” and this implied that Seoul had no idea this was coming.
In answering the question about his commitment to provide the hereditary regime with the “assurance security,” Trump also said: “At some point, I want to get our soldiers [some 28,000 US troops in South Korea] out. I want to bring our soldiers back home.”
However, he stated “that’s not part of the equation right now,” but he hopes “it will be eventually.”
Again, his remarks were extraordinary. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier security summit in Singapore early this month, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the his country was “focused on modernizing our alliance with both the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and Japan, transforming these critical alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
On that occasion, the Pentagon chief also clearly stated that any discussion about the number of US troops in South Korea was “subject to the [ROK’s] invitation to have them there and the discussions between [the US and the ROK],” stressing they were “not on the table” in the Trump-Kim summit.
Only about nine months ago, Trump and Kim, who are probably the world’s most mercurial leaders, traded insults and the Korean Peninsula faced a disastrous military, even nuclear, conflict due to their brinkmanship and threats.
The mere fact that they eventually met and talked face-to-face was already a very good, positive thing. As the saying goes, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.
If their historic summit eventually leads to the establishment of new US-DPRK relations, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the building of a lasting and robust peace regime on the divided peninsula as the their joint statement said, then that will greatly benefit not only the US and the peninsula, but also the region and the wider world.
Instead of being perceived as benign, progressive and assuring, Trump’s post-summit comments about the military exercises and troops in South Korea could unnerve US allies and those who want a strong US commitment to the region
To overcome the seven “decades of tensions and hostilities between the two countries” and to open up such “a new future,” as rightly described by the document, it definitely requires both sides to make huge concessions and concerted efforts.
In an ideal world, such endeavors would certainly include the United States’ termination of military exercises and the departure of its troops from the South.
However, instead of being perceived as benign, progressive and assuring, Trump’s post-summit comments about the military exercises and troops in South Korea could unnerve US allies and those who want a strong US commitment to the region or whose who are worried about his foreign policy in general.
Before departing for Singapore, he had already publicly lashed out at the United States’ closest and strongest allies at the Group of Seven summit in Quebec, accusing them of treating America unfairly and deriding Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak.”
Trump’s remarks about the “expensive” military exercises, as the Yonhap report commented, “underscored his apparent transactional approach to diplomacy.”
But more crucially, they are clear evidence that he doesn’t value the America’s relations with its key allies and is willing to take unilateral decisions that will harm his country’s long-term interests.
It’s no longer a secret that not only North Korea but also China have long called for the end of the US-South Korea military exercises and the removal of USFK from its ally.
As already noted, for security and geopolitical reasons, including its quest for regional dominance, Beijing doesn’t want either a nuclear-powered North Korea or a strong American military presence on its doorstep.
That’s why Beijing has long vehemently championed what it terms “suspension for suspension,” according to which Pyongyang would suspend its weapons tests in exchange for the suspension of the US-ROK military exercises and the “dual track” approach, which calls for “parallel progress in denuclearization and the establishment of a peace mechanism on the Peninsula in a synchronized and reciprocal manner.”
However, both its troublesome neighbor and the US rejected its proposal out of hand last year.
Against this backdrop, though Xi Jinping watched the Trump-Kim summit from the sidelines, he must be very happy about its outcome as the landmark meeting has brought about big “win-win results” for his China.