US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb
US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

The hugely anticipated, first-ever summit between North Korea and the United States – two states which remain technically at war, and which last year appeared on the brink of renewed combat ­– has been declared a success by the two parties.

In a joint declaration, both sides agreed to upgrade relations. North Korea committed to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, while the United States committed to guarantee North Korea’s security.

However, experts criticized the declaration for its lack of details, timelines or tangible commitments.

Kim and Trump bond

“It worked out better than anyone expected, better than anyone predicted,” said US President Donald Trump, who called the document he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed “pretty comprehensive”.  He said he and Kim had forged “a very special bond.”

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Speaking at the joint signing ceremony of the summit’s outcome document, he said a “lot of goodwill” had gone into the document, and that denuclearization would start “very quickly.”

“We are going to leave the past behind and sign a historic document,” Kim, who spoke considerably less than Trump did at the signing ceremony, said. “The world will see a major change.”

In short comments at a photo session after the signing Trump, when asked his opinion on Kim, said, “I learned that he is a very talented man and he loves his country very much.”

Trump also said that the two would “meet again many times.” Experts have made clear – and Trump himself has said – that the summit alone cannot achieve denuclearization, but must be part of an ongoing process.

In a post-summit press conference, Trump said: “The past does not have to define the future… adversaries can become friends.”

This might well be aided by the chemistry between himself and the young dictator – both men placed their hands on each other’s backs as they left the signing venue.

At the signing, Kim was flanked by his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is regarded as his close confidante; Trump was flanked by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The summit had started at 9am, with a 45-minute meeting one-on-one meeting between the leaders with only translators present. Then, both were joined by delegations for more talks and a working lunch.

After lunch, the two took a short walk together for the cameras, then there was what looked like an unscripted meeting outside the venue when Trump appeared to show Kim something in the back of his car, and delegation members, including US National Security Adviser John Bolton, a noted hawk, joined the discussion. Finally, the two signed the summit document.

Roads and traffic flowed normally at the venue Sentosa, a resort island known for beaches and theme parks like Universal Studios, while buses full of tourists passed by the hotel’s locked-down entrance as talks took place within. Dozens of security officers were seen around the entrance of the venue, the Capella Hotel, while police motorcycles circled outside.

The declaration, dissected

Given the massively high stakes; the political capital that both Trump and Kim invested; and the amount of preparation in the lead-up; a success had been widely predicted (assuming that the US president did not walk out in the first minutes, as he had threatened to do).

However, the joint declaration, while comprehensive, is vague. It offers neither details nor timelines. Nor does it commit either party to specific steps.

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Unusually, the declaration was not immediately released to reporters, who were forced to read it by blowing up a photo of Trump holding up the document at the signing ceremony.

The two signatories “commit to establish new US- DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the people of the two countries.” Currently, the two states do not recognize each other diplomatically. In his post-summit press conference, Trump said diplomatic relations could be established “hopefully soon…[but] a little too early for that.”

Moreover, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK.” However, no details of what those security guarantees – bilateral or multilateral – might be offered. The parties also agreed to “put their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.” Again, no details were released on what this might entail, such as a continued testing moratorium by North Korea or reductions of US troop strength on the peninsula.

But in a post-summit press conference, Trump said that the US would be halting “tremendously expensive” war games on the peninsula, which he said were “provocative” for North Korea; the drills raise tensions in Korea every spring. This looks like a major win for Kim, but Trump added that North Korea had agreed to destroy a missile-engine test site.

It is not clear if South Korean President Moon Jae-in had been informed of the war games condition in advance (though he is unlikely  to complain). Trump said he would be calling him after his press conference.

In a key phrase, “Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” This phrase has long been used by North Korea, and is vague enough to refer to US troops and assets in the region, rather than simply North Korea’s weapons. There was no mention of CVID (“Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Disarmament”), the American prescription, nor what oversight or verification mechanisms would be engaged.

Trump, in his press conference, admitted that it would be an “arduous process” but declined to give a timeline for the process. He said sanctions would remain in place, but “at a certain time I look forward to taking them off.”

Moves to return the remains of Americans killed or missing in action in North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War were also in the document.

The document also called for “follow-on negotiations” between “Mike Pompeo and a relevant [North Korean] official.”  This suggests that a process lies ahead – but one likely to be long and difficult. Trump said “we will probably need another summit” and he would go to Pyongyang “at the appropriate time…and I will invite Chairman Kim to the White House at the appropriate time.”

The vexatious issue of North Korean human rights was discussed at the summit, Trump said, but “relatively briefly compared to denuclearization.”

Optical success, substantive failure?

Looking past the optics of Kim and Trump posing in front of flags, praising each other and patting each other on the back, one expert was bitterly disappointed at the outcome.

“After all the hoopla, the time, the preparation and all the talks between the sides – this is it?” said Ambassador Ra Jong-yil, a distinguished professor at South Korea’s National Defense University with a background in intelligence. “’Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’ could mean so many things – submarines near the Korean coast, or even American bases in Japan.”

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“I cannot find anything new or meaningful in this communique unless there was a secret agreement,” Ra added.

Chad O’Carroll, CEO of North Korea Risk, though giving the summit only a ‘C,’ was slightly more upbeat. “Critics will be disappointed that there is no tangible roadmap toward denuclearization, but that a process has been established is probably good,” he said. “A long, step-by-step confidence-building process lies ahead.”

Another pundit contrasted the apparently good vibes between the two leaders with the vagueness of the outcome.

“There are two tracks: the abstract side – the ideas and feelings – and there is the physical, material, side,” said Dan Pinkston, an international relations expert with Troy University in Seoul. “This process to build relationships can change thinking and hostility, but something has to take place on the physical and material side – the disarmament, the inspection and so on – and until there is movement on that, it is just words.”

Local non-experts were more generous. Outside the Capella Hotel, a Singaporean man in a red hat with the words “Make America Great Again,” interviewed by reporters on the roadside, remarked that “Kim Jong-un made a good choice” to meet Trump.

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