The actual meeting of US President Donald Trump and North Korean paramount leader Kim Jong-un marks the end of what could be called the pre-summit period. In a sense this was the first round of negotiation.
Because much of this negotiation was public, whether the United States or North Korea won the pre-summit negotiations can be assessed by comparing each side’s agenda against the concessions made by the other side. Both governments had their respective victories, but Kim was the bigger winner.
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Kim’s agenda includes two immediate goals: to alleviate the threat of a US preventive military strike against nuclear and missile facilities on North Korean territory, and to get the international community to lift economic sanctions against North Korea. Kim also hopes to earn international prestige for his government; to gain recognition, particularly from Washington, of North Korea as a nuclear weapon state; to move US troops off the Korean Peninsula; and to generally weaken the US-South Korea alliance.
Trump’s agenda starts with the overriding US interest in persuading North Korea to halt and dismantle its missile and nuclear bomb programmes. Trump also wants to emerge from the negotiations looking like the master deal maker he claims to be, solving a tough problem his predecessors could not. He clearly likes the idea of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, telling reporters “everyone thinks” he deserves it.
Kim’s biggest success this year was getting the meeting with Trump. And he may have achieved this under false pretences.
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US policy since the Obama Administration was that Washington would not negotiate with North Korea unless the Pyongyang government agreed beforehand the topic would be denuclearisation. The negotiation would be over the price America would pay North Korea to give up its missiles and nuclear bombs. No negotiations occurred because Pyongyang repeatedly said it would never yield its nuclear weapons, or would do so only if America denuclearised first.
It wasn’t a departure from this policy for Trump to agree to meet Kim. Trump made that announcement after hearing from South Korean intermediaries that Kim was “committed to denuclearisation”, which met the US pre-condition. What was unconventional about Trump’s snap agreement to a summit was the reversal of the usual process, in which the top leaders meet only after their subordinates have hammered out a detailed and mutually acceptable deal.
Since then, however, Pyongyang has appeared less willing to denuclearise than the South Korean intermediaries indicated. Subsequent North Korean statements used the phrase “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, which has long been shorthand for North Korea’s demand that the US-South Korea alliance must end before the North gives up its nuclear weapons.
Statements from US officials suggest considerable resistance from the North Korean side on this basic issue. After several meetings with top North Korean leaders including Kim, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the talks were “moving in the right direction” and that it “would be nothing short of tragic to let this opportunity go to waste” – diplomatic speak for “We’re a long way from a deal, and unsure if it will happen.”
Trump reportedly hoped to bring about the total dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear missile project by the end of his first term, but more recently he has tried to lower expectations, saying “I never said it goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process”, and “I told them today, ‘Take your time … We can go slowly’.” After his National Security Adviser John Bolton said the US would insist on complete North Korean denuclearisation before making any concessions, Trump disavowed Bolton’s statement.
In sum, it is far from clear that Pyongyang has really committed to anything like the American conception of denuclearisation. Kim may have tricked Washington into negotiations by appearing to satisfy the precondition without actually doing so, relying on the ambiguity of a misleading phrase, the imprecision of communication through a third party, and Trump’s transparent desire for a summit.
Furthermore, Kim has succeeded in lightening some of the pressure arising from economic sanctions on his country. While the US has not lifted any of its sanctions, Trump has said he will not add any new sanctions before the summit. More importantly, China, which accounts for 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade, has signalled it will no longer vigorously enforce sanctions against Pyongyang as a reward for Kim’s outreach. Kim is also enjoying a bonanza of both domestic and international prestige by meeting foreign leaders like the South’s President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping, helping to obscure his government’s immense crimes against humanity and seemingly proving his claim that nuclear weapons command respect for his country.
That is three successes for Kim, two large and one medium-size.
America, too, has benefited from the pre-summit thaw, but not as much as Pyongyang. First, the three US citizens detained by North Korea are now home. Second, the self-imposed moratorium on missile and nuclear explosion tests has interrupted North Korea’s march toward deploying a credible nuclear missile capability. Without further testing, North Korea remains a “virtual” rather than a demonstrated nuclear weapons state. So that is two successes for the US – one large and one small.
Of course, even though Pyongyang gained more in the pre-summit period, this might matter little a few months from now. If the summit proves to be the first step in a substantial and permanent improvement in US-North Korea relations, both countries and the region as a whole will have won big. If the summit leads to no breakthrough and Washington again grows frustrated, the Kim regime could quickly find itself again under threat of a preventive military strike. ■
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii