The United States (US) has attempted many peace deals in the past in order to halt the nuclear and missile capabilities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea, but the latter has continued with these programmes in order to offer a credible deterrent and prevent regime change. In 1994, an Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea sought to keep North Korea within the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), and at the same time, though supply of two reactors, turn the North Korean nuclear programme in a peaceful direction. When the Bush administration included North Korea in the “Axis of Evil” country list, North Korea withdrew from the NPT and the arrangement had to be given up in 2002. The six-party talks which replaced this arrangement came close to an agreement in 2005 with a package which included denuclearisation, a peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement and security guarantees for the North Korean regime. North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006, and the six-party talks came to an abrupt end.
North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities have grown manifold since then. Today, North Korea has completed six nuclear tests, has claimed that it has tested a thermo-nuclear device and has attempted nuclear miniaturisation for accurate delivery through an accelerated missile programme. In 2017, when North Korea tested a missile with a range of 13000 km, it raised alarm bells in the US, Japan South Korea and even China and the rest of the world. It is amazing that things have been allowed to drift to such an extent by the international community, and the sanctions by Trump and by the United Nations were only imposed after these far reaching developments.
This has created a ring of invincibility around Kim Jong-un, who at a young age of 34 has shown tremendous maturity and has also travelled to China twice before arriving for this Summit with President Trump in Singapore. Successive US administrations have made the mistake of a maximalist approach in negotiations around the world. This is perhaps due to the peculiar inter-agency process in the US, where every entity tries to improve a negotiating stance, thus moving the US position away from reality. If the North Korean regime has been seen as unreliable and dangerous, The US has also come to be known as an unreliable partner – a change in administrations can result in reversals of policies and positions and promises made to countries have been broken. When the US continued with its military exercises with the South Koreans and National Security Advisor John Bolton spoke about a “Libya model” for the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong-un threatened to pull out of the talks. It was largely a South Korean effort which then restored the Summit. Clearly, the situation is changed to such an extent that the US sees no option but to talk directly to the North Koreans, which by itself is no mean achievement for the “hermit kingdom”.
The Summit in Singapore has resulted in a signed document reaffirming the “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” by Kim Jong-un on April 27, at Panmunjom. President Trump, in turn, committed to provide “security guarantees” to North Korea which have not been spelt out. Follow up meetings are important and will be arranged “at the earliest possible date to implement the outcomes of the Singapore Summit” – speaking at the follow up press conference, Trump said this will happen as early as next week. US and North Korea agreed to recover the remains of more than 6000 prisoners of war and those missing in action. This is an emotional issue in the US, and President Trump highlighted this agreement as fulfilment of a promise he made during his election campaign. In his press conference, Trump also claimed that North Korea has also agreed to shut down its missile engine testing site. He described the meeting as “honest, direct and productive” and “better than expected” while Kim stated, “We had a historic meeting and we have decided to leave the past behind. The world will see a major change.”
The North Korean press has highlighted the importance President Trump accorded to Chairman Kim as an equal negotiator and hailed its leaders’ desire for peace. Also highlighted was the suspension of US-South Korea military exercises which is not in the document but which President Trump announced at the subsequent press conference. The Chinese will be pleased that their advocacy of continuing dialogue resulting in reciprocal suspension of nuclear and missile tests by DPRK and military exercises by the US with South Korea seems to have been adopted by the interlocutors at the Summit. Trump also conveyed that future talks on a possible peace treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice will involve South Korea and China besides US and North Korea, which accords China a central place in the unfolding events of the Korean Peninsula.
The results of the Summit have been welcomed across the world. China has praised the results and has called for easing of sanctions on North Korea. There are reports that it has already resumed some trade, and initiated petroleum shipments. The document is unclear about the fate of sanctions. President Trump, answering questions at the press conference stated that the US will not ease pressure of sanctions unless the goal of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation” is reached (although he qualified this by saying that once the process of denuclearisation has started, it is pretty much irreversible and that he would like to take off the sanctions at some stage). This seems to be also a variance with the version put out by the North Korean press which has alluded to a step by step and reciprocal process involving steps towards denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the lifting of sanctions. The revelation that the US delegation showed a video to the North Korean delegation about what an economically transformed North Korea would look like (presumably the discussions were about US economic aid to North Korea for improving its economy) alludes to the fact that a discussion has also taken place on the likely timetable for the easing of sanctions.
Japanese PM Abe called the Summit “a step towards the comprehensive resolution of various issues concerning North Korea”. However, Trump seems to have received no positive response in respect of the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 70s and 80s. The abductions are one of the most important issues for the Abe administration. Japanese have stated that this issue will have to be resolved by themselves bilaterally. There are reports that the Japanese foreign ministry will be in touch with the North Korean delegation at the ongoing Ulan Bataar dialogue. President Abe plans to pursue a dialogue with the North Koreans through the intelligence agencies and if progress is possible on the abduction issue, a Japan-North Korea summit meeting before the September Presidential elections of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which Abe heads, will be sought.
India has welcomed the ‘positive development’ and has expressed the hope that the outcomes will be implemented. Alluding to Pakistan–North Korea clandestine links, India has also expressed the hope that the resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue would take into account and address Indian concerns about proliferation linkages extending to India’s neighbourhood. India has been demanding a probe by the United Nations of these linkages for many years. India has already tried to get back into the center of things in North Korea, by sending General VK Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs, to Pyongyang in mid-May to revive the traditional areas of cooperation. Trade, which is complimentary, can be easily ramped up to the levels before the sanctions when India was among the top three trading partners of North Korea.
Trump seems to have surprised the South Koreans and Japanese by conceding that the military exercises with South Korea will be “given up”. He went on to say that these war games were expensive, and “very provocative”. This is terminology used by North Korea for these exercises. It is uncertain if this concession was thought of during the Summit talks.
Trump himself has admitted that verification of denuclearisation “scientifically and mechanically” will take time but once begun, the process will become irreversible at some point in time. He conveyed that this exercise will be carried out by the US and other unspecified entities/countries, and asserted that Japan and South Korea will pay for the process. Australia has already offered its expertise but added that it will step-in if required, once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is seized of the matter. The issue of financial burden sharing may also not have been discussed and agreed beforehand. Secretary of State Pompeo went to Seoul to mitigate South Korean and Japanese concerns before briefing the Chinese leadership.
The next steps will be watched carefully. Bilateral normalisation between the two Koreas will now move forward, and negotiations on security guarantees, and a possible Peace Treaty, could move apace with North Korea continuing to take steps towards denuclearization – although the timetable of verification with the involvement of IAEA, US and other countries will need to be worked out in Vienna and the capitals involved. The fact the denuclearisation is an expensive process will create its own challenges. If the North Korean freeze on nuclear and missile testing continues and progress is made towards the stated goals in the document signed – that itself will be the most successful outcome of this Summit. The pitfalls of the past must be avoided; history will provide adequate lessons.