Image of US President Donald Trump, China's leader Xi Jinping and North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Photo: Getty Image

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Asia-Pacific countries have hailed the Trump-Kim “deal” on Korean Peninsula denuclearization as a historic event that could lead to lasting peace and economic prosperity in the region. However, before the ink was dry on the documents signed in Singapore, some members of the US Congress and neoconservative media and pundits blasted it as a “great giveaway” to North Korea, China and Russia without getting anything in return.

These groups were particularly irked by US President Donald Trump giving up military exercises that he described as costly and provocative, fearing a loss of America’s influence and trust among its allies South Korea and Japan.

Terminating the large exercise involving tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of warships and jet fighters will, it is said, erode America’s military preparedness. For example, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the war games were worth the cost to keep China from “dominating” the Asia-Pacific.

Trump could face enormous opposition from his political opponents and other anti-China crowds over the deal. But whether his critics have a case depends on one’s perspective.

The contrarian side

Critics of the deal argued that Trump gave away the United States’ trump cards of terminating South Korea-US military exercises and the possibility of withdrawing the more than 30,000 US troops now stationed in South Korea. To the critics, the show of force was the main restraining policy that prevented a North Korean attack on the South and kept China on edge.

To US hawks the deal was a page out of the China playbook of a “double freeze” – North Korea to stop testing intercontinental missiles while the US ceases military exercises with the South. According to the author of an opinion piece in the South China Morning Post, Trump has made China “great.”

One problem with this train of thought is that Trump was right, the war games were provocative, preparing for the total destruction of the North Korean regime. It could indeed be argued that it is the US threat that caused Kim Jong-un’s determination to build up a nuclear arsenal, a credible deterrent. And accusing the North Korea of threatening the US is like saying a toddler is picking a fight with an adult.

Indeed, no country, including China and Russia, is threatening the US.  The “threat” is a creation of vested US interest groups to gain popular support for the country’s huge military budget.

However, not everyone is as cynical as the hawks or neoconservative groups.

The proponent side

As far as South Korean President Moon Jae-in is concerned, the Trump-Kim meeting has injected an atmosphere of peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Many in the region share his optimistic view.

Many news outlets and analysts in the Asia-Pacific region hailed the Trump-Kim deal as a historical milestone, potentially bringing lasting peace and economic prosperity to the region and by the extension the world. Though it is not perfect and many issues must be ironed out, the historic meeting is an achievement in itself.

Only six months ago, North Korea and US were throwing insults at and threatening each other. Now the two countries’ leaders have actually shaken hands and discussed ways to end the nuclear threat.

Further, the last few months have shown Kim Jong-un to be a rational and intelligent leader, capable of taking his impoverished country to a better future. He is said to be open to reforming the economy, creating an investment frenzy in the Chinese region bordering North Korea and a sense of optimism within the “hermit kingdom.”

Denuclearization might not happen

Given the US demand for complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) without giving up its military provocations, it is difficult to tell whether peace and stability will ever be realized on the Korean Peninsula. There are influential and powerful forces within the political, business and security establishments that could torpedo the deal. Trump’s unpredictability, reversing policy stances at a whim, does not garner confidence. His latest threats against China could squander Chinese support, necessary for denuclearization 0n the peninsula.

How influential China is in setting the tone for the Trump-Kim meeting can be and is debated among the experts. Given China’s enormous help to North Korea over the years, from the Korean War to economic survival, there is reason to believe that China might have been the reason for the meeting. Kim did visit Chinese President Xi Jinping twice before he met with Trump.

In addition to the complaints of erosion in war preparedness and losing credibility with allies, Trump’s critics accuse North Korea of cheating on past agreements. On March 9, CNN News reported that Pyongyang had reneged on the 1985 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a 1994 pledge to the US of freezing and dismantling nuclear programs in return for financial aid.

North Korea did walk away from the NPT in 2003, but perhaps in response to then US president George W Bush declaring it a member of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran in his 2002 State of the Union Address.

So there is a history of deep mistrust between Washington and Pyongyang that might not be easily erased.

Guessing game

The fact of the matter is no one really knows what was actually discussed or agreed on at the Singapore meeting. A number of analysts are of the opinion that Trump did not give away anything. In a June 13 program on the Chinese news channel CGTN, The Heat, a US-based Stratfor analyst said Trump’s “concessions” (suspending military exercises) were conditional, implying that the war games would resume if progress was not made on the denuclearization issue.

And the rumor that the Pentagon was not consulted before the Trump-Kim meeting on June 12 might not be true. According to the CGTN report, Defense Secretary James Mattis was consulted. The fact that the Pentagon did suspend major military exercises on the Korean Peninsula indefinitely in a June 14 news release suggested that Mattis might have been agreed in advance with Trump’s decision.

But that’s all speculation. What was mostly likely discussed was the “Panmunjom Declaration,” a joint statement signed by Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in on April 27 to denuclearize and officially end the Korean War.

The declaration was the result of Kim reaching out to the South Korean president in the days leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics. Moon returned the favor by inviting the North Korean Olympic team to march together with the South’s team at the opening ceremonies carrying a flag showing a unified Korean Peninsula and to compete as one team.

Peace and stability are important to both Koreas for obvious reasons. Perhaps more important is that Kim has emerged as an intelligent and strong leader over the past six months, well aware that only possessing nuclear weapons can deter the US from turning threats into actions.

First step

Though the issue is a time-consuming and difficult task, the Trump-Kim meeting is the first step toward a long journey in realizing Korean Peninsula denuclearization. However, its  realization  is easier said than done.

First, CVID was not mentioned in the post-summit declaration, suggesting differences between the US and North Korea on its definition. Some analysts suggest the language might mean Pyongyang wants all US nuclear weapons out of the Korean Peninsula, or even other parts of Northeast Asia, whereas the US might only be referring to North Korea’s dismantling of nuclear-weapons testing and development without any changes in America’s military postures in the region.

Second, there is no guarantee that the US will not do a “Libya” on North Korea, given Washington’s dismal record on keeping promises or living by agreements. The US and its allies, for example, bombed Libya on March 19, 2011, only months after Washington praised Muammar Gaddafi for giving up his nuclear weapons programs. Another example is George W Bush’s withdrawal from the US-Russian agreement on nuclear-weapons reduction signed by his father, George H W Bush.

Kim can be forgiven for not trusting the US and its allies. That is too bad, because there might not be another opportunity to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula for years to come. Trump may be erratic or mercurial in his approach to implement policies, but he is the first US president to recognize that his country is also responsible for the situation on the Korean Peninsula today.

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Ken Moak

Ken Moak taught economic theory, public policy and globalization at university level for 33 years. He co-authored a book titled China's Economic Rise and Its Global Impact in 2015. His second book, Developed Nations and the Economic Impact of Globalization, was published by Palgrave McMillan Springer.

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