Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump shake hands across the table during morning talks at their summit in Singapore. Photo: Pool/ Kevin Lim/ Straits Times
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump shake hands across the table during morning talks at their summit in Singapore. Photo: Pool/ Kevin Lim/ Straits Times

Well, we can’t say that we were surprised. The Singapore summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un went off pretty much as expected. No big breakthroughs, just a lot of smiles, happy talk, and empty promises. The one great positive takeaway is that the summit happened in the first place.

The problem is, there are so many negative repercussions, actual or potential, from this meeting that one wonders why Trump so readily agreed to it, except that it strokes his ego to play the part of global leader. The summit, as most of us know by now, accomplished very little. The summit agreement has practically no substance, and what it does say obligates Kim to do almost nothing.

The ruse behind ‘compete denuclearization’

Trump and his cronies make a big deal out of Kim’s supposed acquiescence to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But it’s a trick: North Korea has for decades called for the denuclearization of the entire peninsula, meaning that the United States would remove (or not introduce) any nuclear weapons from South Korea and remove South Korea from under the US nuclear umbrella.

This would make it nearly impossible for the United States to defend South Korea in the event of a major conflict with the North. US troops in South Korea are de facto defended by US nuclear weapons; to remove this protection would likely require the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea – something else that Pyongyang has been craving for decades.

Of course, at this point, the North has not agreed to any binding protocols for denuclearization – certainly not complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament. It has destroyed a nuclear test site and (perhaps) a facility for testing missile engines, but these could be (and perhaps are being) replaced.

In fact, national security aside, it is inconceivable that North Korea would ever give up its nuclear arsenal. It is the only bargaining chip it possesses, and it can only be spent once. After that, it has no leverage.

Trump throws allies and colleagues under the bus

Worse than an empty summit agreement is Trump’s unilateral disarmament efforts. In particular, he agreed, without prompting, to halt joint US-South Korean military exercises, a major concession. This is something that the North has also been demanding for decades, and Trump offered it up without reciprocation.

Trump typically plays into the hands of autocrats and strongmen. He is so desperate to be liked by them that he happily assumes the role of the beta dog. He even echoed North Korean nomenclature that these exercises were “war games,” and said he could “save a lot of money” by canceling them.

In one fell swoop, Trump threw both South Korea and the US Defense Department under the bus. Neither was consulted or notified in advance about this move. This is what I predicted in my last column:

“Trump is brash, unpredictable, and impetuous. In the heat of the moment, he will often say or offer things that were not originally on the table. He will contradict his staff and freely undermine their efforts…worse, he is prepared to sell out US allies or damage longstanding US policy, all for the sake of a ‘win’ … in short, Trump cares less about what is actually achieved, policy-wise, than he is about the perception of scoring a win: a historic handshake or a bilateral declaration, whatever it takes for Trump to brag that ‘people are saying’ that he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Depressingly predictive.

In addition, by agreeing to a bilateral meeting, Trump raised Kim to a level equal to himself. This undermined decades of effort in securing a united front (the West, as well as China and Russia) in opposition to North Korean nuclearization.

Going forward

Of course, even Trump went into the summit expecting little (but did he have to give up anything?). After this understandable lowering of expectations (which Trump had to do, after unilaterally canceling the summit before resurrecting it), it causes little lasting harm. Nothing that happened at the summit cannot be undone. The real work begins now, with tough negotiations to denuclearize North Korea (if, indeed, it can ever be done), remove or reduce sanctions, and in general welcome North Korea back into the family of nations.

Unless Trump decides to do something unilaterally to undermine this process.


Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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