14 Jun 2018

Photo credit: Flickr.com

The recent unprecedented summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-un has captured immense global attention. Culminating in a joint statement that articulated broad objectives that the U.S. and DPRK would work towards, both countries branded the summit a success – and a major step towards a breakthrough in U.S.-DPRK relations and the eventual resolution of the nuclear issue.

However, U.S. analysts have come out – overwhelmingly – against the outcomes of the summit, with some commentators stating that it was an abject failure with the President being ‘outwitted’ and ‘outfoxed’ by Kim.

While the joint statement was admittedly underwhelming, it is unreasonable for the Western media and U.S. foreign policy analysts to paint a sweeping picture that the summit achieved nothing, with the blame lying squarely with the administration.

“Whose Definition of Denuclearization?”

Three justifications support the assertion that the West has by and large mis-analyzed the outcomes of the summit.

First, the primary bugbear of American analysts is that the joint statement did not state any details of what ‘complete denuclearization’ – the term agreed between the two countries – entailed and how denuclearization would be conducted going forward.

However, the summit was never supposed to discuss the details of denuclearization – not even to clarify if ‘complete denuclearization’ in North Korean terms translated to the American understanding that it would be complete, verifiable and irreversible.

The on-again, off-again meeting was pitched as an ice-breaker of sorts for the two leaders, who had – just months ago – traded highly-publicized barbs and insults at each other. The intent was for the meeting with the U.S. President to help kickstart the negotiation process with the DPRK on denuclearization, not draw up concrete plans to do so.

In other words, the perceived failure of the summit – in the eyes of the West – stemmed from an unrealistic expectation of what it should have achieved. Indeed, it was always wishful thinking to expect that the U.S. and DPRK could put down their differences and agree on a denuclearization definition and timeline within half a day, when this was the first time the two leaders had ever met.

“Why were Human Rights and Abductions Not Addressed?”

The second core problem Western analysts had with the joint statement was that it did not mention other more contentious aspects that Washington should have ironed out with Pyongyang, such as human rights issues, Japanese abductees and the dismantling of mid-range ballistic missiles that places Tokyo in Pyongyang’s attack radius. The latter, in particular, would have reassured Japan – a critical U.S. ally – of its security vis-à-vis DPRK and placated its concerns.

Such criticism points to the inability of Western analysts to understand the power dynamics in this negotiating relationship. With the success of the North Korean regime in developing nuclear weapons that has the capability to reach mainland United States, Pyongyang now holds all the cards. Short of a preventative strike by the U.S. on the North – which would have been a catastrophic move – the only other feasible alternative was to convince Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table.

As such, the North held the leverage in these negotiations because it was America that wanted – and needed – to meet. It would therefore be silly to expect that issues that are clearly red-lines in the eyes of Kim – such as human rights – or that are not a top priority – such as Japanese abductees – are laid out in the first joint statement.

In any negotiation, parties do not – as a matter of common sense – articulate the most contentious matters for early discussion; they tend to talk through matters likely to generate consensus, to build trust and inculcate an amicable future working relationship. Why should U.S.-DPRK talks be any different? It is also worth noting that the meeting constituted the first ‘reset’ in relations between the two states after the third generation Kim came into power in late 2011.

Therefore, it was reasonable for the Trump administration to articulate the fundamental principles moving forward to facilitate further discussions – namely that security guarantees would be provided in exchange for denuclearization, as well as the “establishment of new U.S.-DPRK relations and the building of a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula”.

“Freeze-for-freeze was a Huge Concession!”

The third issue Western analysts had with the summit outcomes was the President’s advocacy for a ‘freeze-for-freeze’. This refers to the halting of U.S.-South Korea exercises and war games if the DPRK stopped all nuclear and missile testing and development – and proceeded to denuclearize. Analysts assessed that promising the stoppage of exercises with a key regional ally was a poor strategic move, especially when the U.S. received nothing in return for the concession.

However, the fact remains that denuclearization was only ever possible if the U.S. provided security guarantees to the North – in effect, providing treaty or verbal reassurances that Washington would not conduct military coercion of Pyongyang. After all, denuclearization would mean removing the single more powerful deterrent measure in Pyongyang’s defence toolkit against American aggression.

Since U.S.-South Korea military exercises were viewed as a serious provocation by the North, it would make sense for Washington to indicate goodwill by halting exercises – so long as the North kept to its end of the bargain and started with the denuclearization process.

In retrospect, the costs of doing so are low for Washington – Seoul would likely not disagree given the Sunshine Policy adopted by President Moon Jae-in; it provides the lucrative carrot enticing Pyongyang to make good on its denuclearization promise; and most importantly, exercises can be reinstated at any time if the North reneges on the agreement.

Therefore, beyond the brash Trumpian rationale that these joint exercises should be discontinued due to their high costs, the willingness to halt war games temporarily makes sense if the U.S. was serious about achieving its denuclearization objective.

Trump-Kim Summit – A Qualified Success

Analysts ought to recall that compared to the counterfactual that all-out nuclear warfare was looking likely at the start of this year, the state of U.S.-DPRK relations today has improved by leaps and bounds. That the two leaders could come to a signed agreement on fundamental principles involving denuclearization is a remarkable feat in and of itself, even if the details are to be determined. The summit constitutes – at minimum – a qualified success.

The prevailing Western narrative of winners and losers emerging from the Trump-Kim summit is an exceedingly dangerous one. It connotes a zero-sum view of the world instead of exercising the basic diplomatic tenet of seeking compromise to achieve win-win outcomes. The question of ‘who came out on top’ should be irrelevant so long as regional peace and stability is maintained. Unfortunately, this appears to be only a secondary consideration of the Western press who are more concerned about American prestige and ‘winning’.

In addition, the point of analysis by Western experts should not have been the absolute outcomes desired; but instead the reversal in trajectory made possible by the summit and its joint statement. Analyzing based on ‘what could have been’ is meaningless without evaluating how far the administration has come in safeguarding U.S. security interests vis-à-vis DPRK.

After all, the summit was always envisaged – at least in Asia – to be the starting point of peace and stability in Northeast Asia. It was never going to be the silver bullet that Western analysts seemed to think it was.

Jansen Tham holds a Masters in Public Policy degree specializing in Politics and International Affairs from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.