Rapid round-up: Trump-Kim summit

13 June 2018

By Lauren Richardson, Sarah A Son and Stephen R Nagy

This article was originally published by Policy Forum.

In this special Policy Forum Rapid Round-up, experts help sort the substance from the spectacle of the historic Trump-Kim meeting.

It was the off-again on-again meeting that has ignited the world’s inspiration and indignation. On Tuesday 12 June, Donald Trump shook hands with Kim Jong-un – the first time in history that a North Korean leader has met with a sitting US President. The two leaders who only last year traded threats and insults sat down for face-to-face talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

So what did the two leaders actually agree to? Is the meeting another major step toward peace and denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, or a continuation of the status quo? And what happens now? We asked the experts.

Dr Lauren Richardson – Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, ANU

“The Trump-Kim summit was the diplomatic event of the year – if not the decade. International expectations were running high for a resolution to the nuclear tensions that have plagued US-DPRK relations and Northeast Asia at large for decades.

“Can we now look forward to a denuclearised North Korea? Not just yet. In the short term, at best we are likely to see a reduction in – and ideally, a cessation of – North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. And while denuclearisation is not an impossibility in the long term, it will be a fraught and protracted process and one that would likely take years.

“The most important development that could flow from the summit would be the normalisation of US-North Korean relations. This would provide the most solid foundation for the two leaders to navigate diplomatically the treacherous path to denulearisation.”

Dr Sarah A Son – Research Director, Transitional Justice Working Group

“The Trump-Kim summit made for a momentous day, for all sorts of reasons. The fact that these two leaders met is a huge and positive step forward from the “fire and fury” of 2017. Kim Jong-un’s participation in a diplomatic event of this magnitude has certainly lifted his status internationally and at home.

“However, the declaration signed by both parties left a great many important questions unanswered. It is still unclear what denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula actually means and what it would look like in practice. Trump’s hour-long press conference shed little light on key timelines and details for further negotiations and implementation, while he made numerous unsupported claims about his confidence in Kim Jong-un’s commitment to start a new process “very quickly”.

“Trump also deflected questions on human rights at least three times during the press conference, refusing to offer any clarity on what, if anything, was discussed on this matter. If North Korea is to achieve genuine normalisation in relations with the US and the international community, it is going to have to address the systematic human rights abuses that are fundamental to the regime’s control over its people. Despite being an unpopular topic with North Korean state representatives, human rights are fundamentally linked to nuclear weapons development and the security of the North Korean state. Immense financial resources have been devoted to the nuclear program while 70 per cent of the North Korean population remains food insecure, according to the World Food Program.

If Trump’s claims about forthcoming progress come to fruition and sanctions are lifted, members of the international community who engage in economic development assistance and humanitarian aid in North Korea have a crucial opportunity to attach conditions related to human rights to their provisions. Only when we see improvement on this front can we assume that North Korea is genuine in claiming that this time is different.”

Dr Stephen R Nagy – International Christian College, Tokyo

“The Trump-Kim Summit was long on optics and short on substance.

“Beijing will be delighted by the outcome as the Trump-Kim agreement will make a military option to denuclearising North Korea a non-starter. This serves Beijing well as we are returning to the status quo.

“Status quo or more diplomacy means Beijing can argue that severe sanctions are no longer necessary as Pyongyang is engaging in good faith diplomacy, and as a result, China will loosen if not remove sanctions in the coming months.

“Diplomacy means Beijing’s major concern about a conflict on its border is unlikely and the likelihood of Pyongyang flipping much less probable. It can now use economic enticements to court Pyongyang and ensure it does not endanger China’s core interests.

“The agreement said nothing about the Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearisation (CVID) of North Korea, and only mentioned it in the context of the Korean Peninsula in general. This basically repeats Pyongyang’s longstanding position and is not essentially any movement in Trump’s direction.

“This kind of agreement is in line with Chairman Kim’s father and grandfather’s definition of denuclearisation – that is, the denuclearisation of the Peninsula and surrounding region including Japan.

“Going forward, Beijing will encourage Pyongyang’s diplomacy and provide economic incentives to ensure they commit to diplomacy.  This suits Pyongyang, as they have a nuclear strategic deterrent and it allows the Kim regime to pursue the second pillar of the byungjin strategy – namely economic development.

“Japan should be relieved, on the one hand, that denuclearisation is returning to incremental diplomacy rather than a rushed bad agreement. On the other hand, Tokyo is still apprehensive about Washington’s theatre diplomacy and lack of details in the ahistoric agreement.

“Last minute remarks by President Trump concerning the pausing of joint training between South Korea and the US are not such a give-away considering we just had the annual drills. Additionally, Trump can wait a year to see if Kim is fulfilling his side of the very-late-on-substance agreement before resuming drills.

“Trump will claim a victory, but the agreement itself is much the same as previous ones, meaning he was not a deal-maker as he proudly bragged. He doesn’t need to sell the agreement to his base but to his domestic political opponents and key allies in the region.

“Kim, on the other hand, has achieved what his father and grandfather could only dream of: a face-to-face meeting with the US President as a nuclear peer. This will garner him ample political capital to push through incremental economic reforms.

“We are now back to the status quo until both sides engage in reciprocal confidence-building measures. This will take time, good diplomacy and insulation from domestic politics in the US to ensure that the conditions for denuclearisation can be established.

“I strongly believe there will be no rapid denuclearisation for the Peninsula. Pyongyang would have to agree to highly intrusive inspections including in prison and labour camps. This would reveal the depth of human right abuses in North Korea and the nature of the regime itself. Sustaining political support for engaging with such a regime would be a daunting task, even for the ‘America First’ President.”

Image credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

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